DENVER — To passers-by, the graffiti that stains the streets of southwest Denver can look like an alphabet soup of colorful scribbles and lines. But to the detectives who must track and decipher it, the tags tell a very different story, one with increasingly violent undertones.
Since January, three men have been shot in cases linked to tagging crews. At least one of last year's homicide victims was a well-known crew member, and police are investigating the possibility that tagging also played a role in the deadly shooting of another teen.
The violence resembles that of more notorious street gangs and is frustrating to Denver's graffiti detectives, who monitor them and their ever-evolving alliances. It has become such a challenge that the two detectives have started accompanying juvenile probation officers on their visits to taggers' homes, where they often find gang paraphernalia — and worse.
"We recover a lot of ammunition, a lot of simulated weapons," Detective Gerard Alarcon said. "That all gets confiscated, so it makes it harder for them to use. That way, we can squelch some of the violence."
Comprehensive statistics on the problem aren't available. The department keeps data on gang-related shootings but does not specify those that involve tagging crews.
But Alarcon and Detective George Gray, his partner, say they've watched their work evolve from tabulating property damage to investigating beatings, stabbings and shootings, mostly over slights and insults, real or perceived. The pair moved into the gang bureau last summer, in part to help other detectives understand the crews they're seeing more often.
"It's no longer just a small-scale property crime," Gray said. "Typically, it will start on the wall; they'll cross each other out. And it evolves like any other gang."
The tags themselves have become more foreboding, often including "187," the California criminal code for homicide. Taggers can be seen fighting one another in YouTube videos and flashing signs in photos on Facebook.
It's not the first time Denver police have encountered feuding tagging crews. A war between two Latino graffiti groups that erupted seven years ago was marked by drive-by shootings, a stabbing at an outdoor gala and at least two slayings. But the landscape has changed in the years since the sparring of WK, or Wreckin' Krew, and EMS, short for Evil Minded Soldiers. Detectives fear it has also become more volatile.
"Back then, you just had those two groups that took it to a different level," Gray said.
"Now, we have groups that have kind of cliqued up with other groups, so instead of just one crew versus one crew, now you have one crew versus three or four crews," Alarcon said.
And sometimes crews will go after their own. In late October, an internal battle among members of NOS, or Never Out Styled, escalated when one tagger fired at least seven shots into another's home in the 2900 block of West Vassar Avenue, according to court documents. Scared, the family who lived there moved away.
So did the two men who were wounded in January at an apartment in the 1000 block of South Eliot Street in a shooting that was touched off when one man "crossed out" another's tag on the side of a building.
Gregory Gomez-Ramirez, 19, and Jonathan Sandoval, 22, were charged with attempted murder and other crimes in that case. Detectives found spray- paint cans when they searched Sandoval's car.
And a brawl among members of feuding crews on West Fifth Avenue and Knox Court last month escalated from a fistfight when a 15-year-old tagger pulled a gun and shot a 40-year-old man in the back, police said. He remains hospitalized. Eric Jovani Delatorre was charged as a juvenile with attempted murder.
"It's becoming an epidemic now," said Johnny Santos, a former tagger who has done outreach to others and still keeps in touch with some. "Hybrid gangs have taken over southwest Denver."
The recent uptick, he said, is happening as taggers continue to mourn Isaiah Garcia, 18, who was shot as he answered a knock at his apartment door last March 23. Garcia used the tag "HAZER" and identified with a crew called KHT, his Facebook page shows. No arrests have been made in his death.
"No one knows who shot HAZER. There's a lot of names floating around," Santos said.
Part of Santos' job in outreach was to quash rumors to prevent retaliation.
"With this anniversary coming up, we don't know what will happen," he said.
Santos met Garcia while he was working in graffiti abatement as part of a stint in probation. He would send Garcia ahead of the others to find tags in places the casual cleanup crew might ignore.
"He had that persona that just drew you in. He was really charismatic, but he also had a sad story," Santos said. "They leave their families, and they create their own families. That's why you see all this rivalry going on."
As Edwin Cano, 19, who was charged with attempted murder in the shooting on West Vassar, put it, "NOS isn't even a gang; it's more of a family. When you're an NOS, you get treated good."
He spoke last week from the Jefferson County Detention Center, where he is being held in an unrelated burglary.
Despite the large "NOS" tattoo on his back, he said he doesn't identify with the crew anymore, "but if it really came down to it, I'd have their back." He said he got involved when he was about 14, growing up on the streets of southwest Denver.
Cano started tagging his moniker — "ALECT" — and was soon recruited by a number of crews.
"NOS was everywhere, so I just started with them," he said. He said the crew had been in "no big fights," but the lifestyle clearly brought violence. He said one of his first run-ins with rival crew RSK was over a girl. By his account, an RSK member pepper-sprayed him and tried to fight him as he walked down the street.
Two summers ago at a rave, he said, he was jumped and stabbed by a group of RSKs and KHTs. He thinks it was a setup.
"They hit me with a shovel, and they stabbed me with I don't know what on my butt," Cano said.
Why all the bad blood?
"Honestly," Cano said, "I don't know."
Denver police homicide detectives are also investigating the chance that tagging played a role in the December killing of Demetrius Cruz, 15. Shots were fired from a white vehicle that had been chasing another car in which Cruz was a passenger. The case remains unsolved and under investigation.
Cruz's relatives said he wasn't a tagger but knew many people who were. They believe that might have played a role in the shooting.
"We don't know who did this," said his mother, Antoinette Cruz, urging the shooter to come forward.