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Police, educators say gang violence on the rise among juveniles in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY -- 2017 marks a busy summer on the streets for the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit, and this year detectives say they are seeing growing gang violence with a new target: teens and children as young as 10 years old.

Detective Esekia Afatasi of the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit said recruitment starts earlier than ever these days.

“Recruiting now is on the rise," he said. "They're in our elementary schools recruiting kids younger in the gang world. It's strength in numbers, so they're recruiting kids younger and younger every year."

The Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit says they’re seeing a lot more robberies, drive-by shootings, homicides and overall crime in general. But one of the biggest differences detectives are seeing this year is the age of those involved.

“The majority of our crimes this summer have been juvenile-related,” Afatasi said.

Detectives say teens are the victims and culprits of these violent crimes. Investigators are looking to see if several recent deadly shootings are gang related.

This week a 14-year-old boy died after being shot in the face, and before that a 16-year-old died after a shooting in West Valley City.

The Metro Gang Unit is seeing documented gang members as young as 10 years old. It's a trend schools are noticing too.

“We definitely noticed the adults are going into the high schools, we can see that these high school students are beginning to recruit as young as fourth and fifth grade, in our elementary schools,” said Maria Garcia, a Gang Prevention Specialist with Granite School District.

Garcia runs the districts' “Choose Gang Free” program that works with the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit.

She says she asks gang members: “Tell me, as a gang member, what are your two future opportunities? The majority of them tell me, either jail or dead. And I say, 'Well, why don't you tell me which one of those you are OK with?' They all tell me 'neither.'"

The program helps those kids pick a new path and focuses on preventative measures in the classroom. Garcia says it’s a problem that’s not talked about enough.

“They would be blown away; people are oblivious that we have a gang problem,” Garcia said.