Crime emerged as a major issue in this year's statewide elections, with Governor-elect Brian Kemp vowing a crackdown on gang violence. Yet those on the front lines warn the challenge has grown more difficult as gangs have become more sophisticated and idiosyncratic.
Perhaps no Atlanta gang illustrates this better than Famerica, which dominates the west side drug trade, said veteran Atlanta Police Department investigator Tyrone Dennis.
“Whoever controls the dope controls the area,” Dennis said.
Their colors symbolize the melting pot that is Famerica: Red for Bloods, blue for Crips and white for unity.
“You’ve got 20 different gangs in the same room,” said Dennis, who grew up in the projects of St. Louis. “Some of them are from Thomasville. You got Crips. You got Bloods. Gangster Disciples.”
“Their goal was to leave everyone else (other gangs) alone, but that’s virtually impossible,” Dennis said.
Those dual allegiances can be traced back to the early 2000s, when Atlanta moved away from a housing project model. Section 8 units were scattered through the city, and the gangs that emerged did so by consolidating various factions with mutual rivals.
“Gangs used to be determined by which housing project you lived in,” Dennis said. “But when all the projects went away, allegiances changed. So you’re going to see people with allegiances to their original gang and their new one.”
But dismantling old barriers isn't the only thing that has fueled Famerica's growth. Ralo, born in The Bluff — the northwest Atlanta neighborhood infamous for drug-related crime — has attracted legions of followers through his burgeoning fame, said Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Ryan Piechocinski.
“The more fame they get, the more control they want,” said Piechocinski, who has been prosecuting gangs for two years.
Ralo has endeared himself to some in the community, where he often dispenses free food and clothes. Supporters packed a bond hearing for Ralo in April. (Bond was denied.)
“Because he’s in Georgia, he’s going to prison for a year,” supporter Veronica Waters said. “Had he been in California, he would have been just another marijuana millionaire.”
For his part, the 23-year-old Atlanta native denies any gang involvement. He is a practicing Muslim, and many Famerica members follow his lead.
“We’re godly men. We ain’t selling no dope,” Ralo said in a video posted on YouTube in July 2017. “I’ve done that and ain’t gotta do that again in my life. I was one of the lucky dudes in my neighborhood who became a multimillionaire.”
But in April, Ralo found himself back behind bars facing a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute. Authorities allege he sold drugs from several apartment units he rents in Atlanta dubbed “Pakistan.” Eight of his associates, believed to be Famerica members, are named in an 11-page criminal complaint.
They are accused of traveling to California twice to retrieve 964 pounds of marijuana — worth nearly $2 million — with the intention of selling it on the streets of Atlanta.
Piechocinski said Ralo’s arrest hasn’t diminished Famerica’s standing, or Ralo’s.
“I would imagine he’s still running things, still making tons of money,” the prosecutor said.
Kids, entranced by Ralo’s fame and fleet of Lamborghinis, want to be him. Dennis said he has seen children as young as 9 years old involved in gang activity.
And as they grow older and survey their options, gangs maintain a powerful hold.
“It’s hard to get them out of that mindset,” Dennis said. “Why work two weeks to get $1,000 when you can go out on the streets and make it in two hours? It’s frustrating because I try to do outreach, too.”
It makes combating gangs one of the most difficult tasks for law enforcement.
From a prosecutorial standpoint, the objective is to “go big or go home,” Piechocinski said.
“You’ve got to come at them with big indictments that carry a lot of time,” he said. “Don’t let them dictate how and when a case is being solved.”
That was evident on Nov. 16, when four teens tied to the “Gangster Killer Bloods” were indicted on 48 counts in Fulton County for their alleged involvement in two homicides and nine armed robberies over a span of one month in early 2017.
But gangs, which according to law enforcement are responsible for most of the crime in Atlanta, find strength in numbers.
“We have thousands of gang members,” Piechocinski said. “We don’t have thousands of prosecutors.”
As for Famerica, the gang remains firmly in control of the west side, even with their purported leader in federal custody.
“Will they still be around in 5 to 10 years? That’s hard to say,” Piechocinski said.
If not, another gang will take Famerica’s place. Perhaps one led by a burgeoning celebrity with 2 million Instagram followers.