The rate of gang violence in South Carolina rose nearly 1,000 percent over the past decade, with rural Colleton County topping the list of the most-hard-hit areas in the state, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study, prepared by the state Department of Public Safety, charted marked growth in gang activity and membership across South Carolina between 1998 and the end of 2007. Before 1998, the state had no mechanism for tracking gang activity through law enforcement reports.

Among other things, the report found that gang activity was not as heavily tied to populated urban areas as might be expected. Though Richland County reported the most gang violence in 2007, it was closely followed by rural Florence and Darlington counties, the study found.

Colleton County, with just 38,000 people, had the highest gang violence rate in the state, with 98 incidents reported in 2007, the study found.

Two years later, the county continues to struggle with gangs that authorities blame for a tide of retaliatory bloodshed.

Sheriff's investigators have identified some 20 gangs operating in Colleton County, each with about 20 members. Many residents suspect that gang activity was to blame for a drive-by shooting last month that killed a toddler and two others in Walterboro.

In the wake of the shootings, extra federal, state, county and local law enforcement officers were called in to help restore order.

"The violence in Colleton County is out of control," Sheriff George Malone said after another man was shot dead at the end of November.

The study also found that:

--The number of gang murders increased from zero in 1998 to 21 reported in 2007.

--The number of inmates identified as gang members increased 184 percent from fiscal years 2000 to 2008, with a total of 1,137 gang members in state prisons last year.

--Gang-related crime is disproportionately the province of juveniles, young adults, males and minorities. Of the 154 gang members implicated in homicides between 1998 and 2007, 61 percent were between 17 and 21 years old, nearly 90 percent were black and 94 percent were men. Of the 48 gang murder victims in that time, 85 percent were black.

--Hands, feet and fists were the most common weapons used in gang violence. Guns accounted for 23 percent of the weapons involved in incidents of gang violence, though they were used in nearly all gang murders.

The study's authors cautioned that, despite the growth, gang activity remains a relatively small contributor to South Carolina's overall crime numbers, accounting for about 1 percent of the violence reported in the state in 2007.

Though inmate gang membership also has grown, gang members still constitute just 4.6 percent of the state's inmate population, the study noted.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt sent officers to Los Angeles five years ago to get specialized gang training, and his department has maintained a two-person gang unit ever since.

Police continue to see signs and behavior associated with gangs, but Zumalt said he has not seen gang-related turf wars like he did when he was a Wichita, Kan., policeman in the 1990s. None of North Charleston's 11 homicides this year have had gang ties, he said.

"It's something we stay very alert to, but the true, classic street gangs are not something we see here," he said.

Charleston County ranked among the top counties in the state for the number of jail inmates identified as gang members. Sheriff's Maj. John Clark said 54 identified gang member were housed in the jail on Wednesday.

Despite that presence, the jail hasn't had many instances of gang-related violence within its walls, he said.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.