By the numbers: Gang violence

Gang activity in South Carolina goes largely unmeasured, but estimates put it as high as 10,000 children and teens participating in gangs statewide. Here's a look at the most recent statistics the State Law Enforcement Division has on gang crime*:Year Aggravated Fondling Intimidation Kidnapping Murder Rape Robbery Simple TotalAssault Assault Crimes2006** 296 3 111 10 5 6 69 278 7782005 264 2 134 6 2 6 46 230 6912004 216 5 82 8 4 8 46 246 6152003 181 6 96 2 5 10 48 172 5222002 139 2 33 3 1 5 52 135 370*The escalation in gang crime can, in part, be attributed to higher levels of education and training that help law enforcement recognize and report the activity.**Numbers are preliminary.

COLUMBIA — She has her choice: sex with six different men, or she could pick just one, the one who is HIV-positive.

He can decide between a six-minute beating, no holds barred, or to commit murder, with killing a cop earning the highest honors.

These are the decisions more and more of South Carolina's youngest are making, whether it's emulating the bloody origins of MS-13 in El Salvador or forming a neighborhood gang to carry out violence.

Although reporting standards lag, evidence of rising gang activity this year was told in anecdotes Monday during the first meeting of the state Gang Prevention Study Committee.

"We want to determine why getting beat into a gang is preferable to anything that could be going on in his life," Assistant Attorney General DeWayne Pearson said, after showing the group a video of a young man being beaten during a 2003 gang initiation in his bedroom while his parents, unaware, were downstairs.

Attorney General Henry McMaster led the committee, which is made up of lawmakers, church leaders and social service partners, including representatives from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. They are charged with delivering an advisory report to the Legislature by Jan. 30.

McMaster outlined the committee's goals as evaluating what education and training must be made available to law enforcement, finding ways to raise awareness through schools and churches, and drafting proposals for intervention programs. Additionally, the committee agreed on a need for mandatory reporting so the state can better track gang activity and trends.

What officials do know is that the gangs in South Carolina are connected both closely and loosely to the big-city gangs like MS-13 and the Bloods and Crips, while others are local groups that study the more notorious gangs and imitate their actions. The gangs are composed of black, white and Hispanic youth, transcend socioeconomic lines and can include children as young as 5 years old.

A.V. Strong, executive director of A Better Way "Project Gang Out," a nonprofit, faith-based group run out of Columbia, said he was speaking recently to an auditorium of 700 children at an Orangeburg elementary school, and about half identified themselves as being members of a gang, primarily through an older brother or sister.

Strong, who acknowledged that estimates vary greatly, said roughly 10,000 children and teens in South Carolina belong to 65 gangs. The State Law Enforcement Division had, as of February, identified 325 groups with a combined membership of more than 1,600.

Reported incidents of gang related crime have increased from 370 crimes in 2002 to 778 in 2006, according to SLED, which says some of the increase results from law enforcement agencies more keenly recognizing gang violence.

"It is increasing at an alarming rate," said Mac McGee, program coordinator for Project Gang Out. "Unless we open our eyes and see it, and aren't so naive to say it doesn't exist, we can't stop it."

The study committee was formed as part of legislation that aims to help the state better understand its gang activity. The legislation also gave the state grand jury authority to investigate criminal gang activity. The grand jury has investigated two cases since the legislation was signed by the governor in June and could be taking on a third, McMaster said.

McMaster said the grand jury investigations are powerful because they can compel testimony, which will help the state learn why teens are joining gangs, how recruitment works and what fears members have about leaving.

"The idea is to get into gangs to find out why they work," McMaster said. "We can get a picture of gang activity in South Carolina that we have not been able to find before."

The committee is expected to meet again in early January.