CONCORD — New Hampshire's top federal law enforcers say their successors should expect to see a continued rise in criminal street gangs along with the trouble they bring while the Internet is becoming more of a tool for white-collar criminals.
"Gangs, guns and drugs," is how outgoing U.S. Marshal Stephen R. Monier describes one of the greatest threats facing the state.
"The trend is more and more of the young punks and the drug dealers who are arming themselves. There are more guns out there that are owned by the criminal element than ever before," added U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire Thomas P. Colantuono.
Colantuono and Monier were appointed to their posts by former President George W. Bush in 2002. Both remain in holdover status until their successors are nominated and confirmed. Colantuono, 57, said he has almost finalized his future plans and expects to leave office in late winter or early spring. Monier, 56, a former Goffstown police chief, said he is beginning to explore his options, noting his position generally takes longer to fill.
The increase in armed robberies at corner stores, gas stations and banks often can be traced to gang or drug-related activity, Colantuono said. The same goes for armed home invasions, which he said "are mostly drug rips."
Criminal street gangs also are a growing problem in the state's prisons and jails, which have become a breeding ground for gang activity and recruitment, he added.
A registry set up last year to track gang members in state prison identified nearly 500 gang members who moved through the system in its first two months, a commission set up last year to study criminal street gang violence wrote in its interim report.
Not only are criminals more likely to join gangs as inmates, but many feel they have no choice, Colantuono said.
"If you are out there on your own, you are a target for everybody. But if you have a gang behind you, there are certain members of the prison population who won't mess with you," he explained.
The same 2008 law that created the gang study commission also will provide enhanced prison terms for those convicted of gang-related crimes and make it a crime to solicit gang members. It goes into effect March 31.
"This is a good preventative tool for law enforcement. It sends a strong message," Monier said.
It is part of a surge of gang-busting efforts law enforcers launched to drive back violent, organized street gangs before they erode the quality of life in the state's largest cities, mainly Manchester and Nashua, Colantuono said.
Their hope is to replicate multi-agency models already used in New Hampshire to successfully tackle crystal methamphetamine production and child pornography through increased enforcement, prosecution and enhanced penalties, Colantuono said.
Federal law enforcers first incorporated anti-gang crime fighters into the Project Safe Neighborhood initiative in 2005 when they discovered a dual problem emerging on urban streets. First, affiliates of national street gangs such as the Latin Kings, Bloods, Latin Gangster Disciples and, to a lesser extent, Crips, were operating in southern cities. Second, local youths seeking to imitate them were forming local, "homegrown" gangs, Colantuono said.
"A lot of the influence is from people moving in. But you also have the home-growns -- the kids from Manchester and Nashua who want to join the gang lifestyle for what they see through rap music and television and what they hear about at school from other kids, but what they also see from people moving in," he said.
The FBI formally set up a Safe Streets Gang Task Force in Manchester on Jan. 1, 2008, after a year-long study revealed an increasing gang presence in southern New Hampshire. The multi-agency unit, which tries to drive gangs out before they get a foothold, is becoming a growing force, Colantuono said.
Both men reflected on defining moments of their seven-year terms during a recent interview. Anti-terrorism emerged as a top priority in the post-9/11 era and was followed by the creation of the state's first joint Terrorism Task Force to follow up on leads, coordinate intelligence sharing and conduct investigations, none of which resulted in the direct prosecution of an international terrorist.
But suspected domestic terrorists also dominated the news. The 10-month standoff between federal agents and convicted Plainfield tax evaders Ed and Elaine Brown, who promised to use force against any law enforcer who sought to arrest them while recruiting like-minded and often armed supporters to join their cause, drew national attention.
Monier engineered the peaceful end to the standoff in 2007 while federal prosecutors successfully prosecuted the Browns and four of their supporters. The case against the Browns remains open.
"They turned it into more than just a tax case and the investigation is continuing," Monier said.
Threats against judiciary
Looking ahead, Monier warns of increased threats against members of the judiciary, which the Marshal's office is charged with protecting, and increased use of the Internet to commit crimes from child pornography to identity theft.
Colantuono agreed with U .S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's assessment that the nation's northern border with Canada poses a greater danger than its border with Mexico and needs to be reviewed.
While he said the border is safer today than it was on 9/11, it needs attention given the vast area has fewer agents patroling it than they do the Mexican border and a number of terrorists are known to live in Canada.
"There are populations living in Canada who come from ... dangerous countries," Colantuono said.
Monier was responsible for creating the New Hampshire Joint Fugitive Task Force in 2002. The unit has so far arrested more than 2,200 violent felons with outstanding local warrants against them and has a 90 percent success rate in capturing some of the state's most serious offenders, Monier said, adding he expects it will remain a permanent part of his office.
Colantuono cited various initiatives that have been successful in combating child pornography, identity theft and crystal methamphetamine production.
All involved a coordinated approach by federal, state, county and local law enforcement, beefed up enforcement and prosecution, new laws or enhanced penalties.
"This is a big part of Tom's legacy," Monier said. "(Tom) is very open to having the resources of his office assisting state and local law enforcement officers to develop strategies to deal with these problems before they become huge problems."
Colantuono said his office has increased efforts to attack illegal drug distribution from major national and international drug trafficking to street-level dealers in part by focusing more resources on it and partly through collaborative efforts with other agencies.
His office also has increased prosecutions for passport fraud, identity theft and increased civil and criminal asset forfeitures which have averaged more than $2 million a year since 2003, Colantuono said.