In Athens, youth shootings galvanize efforts to combat gang violence

One victim of gang violence this year was three years old, say police.
Hundreds attended a balloon release in honor of Kyron Santino Zarco Smith on Wednesday March 13, 2024 at Heard Park in Athens, Georgia. Smith was a 3-year-old killed by gang-related gunfire on March 8, 2024.

Credit: Fletcher Page

Credit: Fletcher Page

Hundreds attended a balloon release in honor of Kyron Santino Zarco Smith on Wednesday March 13, 2024 at Heard Park in Athens, Georgia. Smith was a 3-year-old killed by gang-related gunfire on March 8, 2024.

ATHENS — Blue, silver and white balloons reach for the sky again.

Some people in a large crowd offer words of encouragement or sympathy but most stand in silence. There are hugs and tears during another gathering for a shooting death in Athens. Another young life has suddenly ended.

This time in early June it’s for 20-year-old Cameron Manago. His mother, Kim Manago, tells the group she talked to her oldest child every day. She smiles when telling about how he always asked for money, then places her hands over her mouth and pauses to take deep breaths.

“I don’t know how I will go on, but I will because I have another child,” she said.

In March, hundreds gathered after 3-year-old Kyron Santino Zarco Smith was shot and killed while watching cartoons in his home. Shanita Smith attempted to speak about her son to the crowd in March but was overcome with emotion.

Balloons released for both Smith and Manago were mostly blue, Smith’s favorite and a primary color at Cedar Shoals High, where Manago graduated in 2022.

Athens made national headlines in February when a man who entered the U.S. illegally was charged with murder in the death of nursing student Laken Riley at the University of Georgia, the first homicide on the campus in more than 20 years.

Athens-Clarke County had the state’s fifth-highest crime rate in 2022, according to the most recent GBI data. But most crime happens off campus, particularly on the east side of Athens, where poverty is higher, and where Smith and Manago lived and died.

Local police blame much of it on gang activity. They are teaming up with elected officials to try to break the cycle of recruitment, crime and violence — and the toll it is exacting on youths in particular.

“I hate that we have to continue to meet on these terms of losing a child,” said Tiffany Taylor, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner who grew up on the east side.

Four men were indicted on murder charges for Smith’s killing. Police arrested a 16-year-old for allegedly killing Manago during an attempted robbery.

Four of the five arrested in the two killings were teenagers. Authorities say each individual allegedly had involvement with street gangs. Police attribute an ongoing conflict between rivals Everybody Eats (“EBE”) and the Red Tape Gang (“RTG”) as the driving force for more than 400 reported shootings in Athens-Clarke County since 2021, including 11 deaths.

So far in 2024, there have been 37 shootings reported with nearly 200 shell casings recovered, 12 people shot and at least two deaths, according to police data. Police said not all shootings are gang-related, but the majority have a gang connection.

Homicides in Athens have been in the single digits 18 of the past 20 years. And the number of reported shootings here decreased from 141 in 2022 to 110 last year, according to ACCPD data. But recent deaths of young people and the young ages of those arrested is a jarring juxtaposition to trending statistics.

“Could it be dramatically worse? Yes,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said. “Do we have more work to do? Hell yes.”

Red Tape Gang membership is in the hundreds and Everybody Eats is between 75 and 100, according to Athens-Clarke County Police Lt. Shaun Barnett.

They are hybrid gangs, says Barnett, head of the ACCPD gang unit, because they began as neighborhood or school cliques of friends and have evolved with connections to nationwide gangs as members grew older.

“We have members of varying nationwide gangs — Pirus, Gangster Disciples, Bloods, Crips — but they’re still loyal to their neighborhood friends and gang,” Barnett said.

Georgia law defines a “street gang” as any organization, association, or group of three or more persons associated, whether formal or informal, which engages in criminal gang activity. In 2022, Attorney General Chris Carr created Georgia’s first statewide Gang Prosecution Unit to dedicate resources and coordinate with state and local law agencies. Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed bills into law that stiffened punishment for gang crimes.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that we need to save,” said Jose Ramirez, president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, a nonprofit that advises law enforcement and prosecutors. “The gangs are doing a better job of intervening in these kids’ lives than many of us in society, from adults to legislatures to our leaders to our churches.”

A decade ago, two gangs were most prevalent in Athens — 2 Tuff on the east side and Never Broke Again (”NBA”) on the west side. From 2014 to 2017, there were two homicides in Athens that police attribute to gang violence.

The economy for these gangs then, as it is now according to Barnett, is based in drug sales and theft, including entering automobiles in search of guns to steal. With an enrollment of more than 40,000, UGA, the state’s flagship public educational institution, creates opportunities for such crime.

“Big apartment complex parking lots present a target rich environment,” said Barnett. He said gangs often recruit children and teens to check for cars that are unlocked.

In 2019 the Red Tape Gang formed as a spinoff from 2 Tuff, Barnett said. In 2020, Ketravian Tyvon Cole, an Athens rapper known as EBE Montana, released music with lyrics stating he would kill members of RTG. That triggered at least two shootings involving RTG members and Cole, according to police reports, before Cole was shot and killed in Barrow County in 2021.

Since then, police say at least five members of RTG and EBE have been killed by gunfire. Smith’s slaying in March, police said, happened during a drive-by where members of one gang targeted individuals from the other.

Kyron Zarco Smith, 3, was shot and killed in Athens in March.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

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Credit: Channel 2 Action News

While much of the violence has been contained within gangs, the death of the toddler inside his own home led to an emotional plea from ACCPD chief Jerry Saulters.

“It is time for this community to get behind us and for us to join hands and work together to stop this,” Saulters said at the balloon release in March.

ACCPD has recently bolstered the gang unit with additional uniformed officers and a second supervisor to assist Barnett. The department also made policy changes, targeting violent offenders and revising conditions of bond release.

“Generally it’s a small number of people committing large amounts of crime,” Barnett said. “In the past we have arrested one person for a shooting and we have noticed that shooting in that area fell off the face of the map completely after that.”

In 2022, Girtz and the county commission approved $7 million of American Rescue Plan funding for Youth Development and Violence Prevention. Since then, the county has partnered with the school district to ensure youth sports leagues are available to every student.

It also has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to reopen four community centers. The centers have after-school programming and are open on weekends — and during the summer, when school’s out.

“It’s getting to the point now where gangs are recruiting elementary school kids, so we have to start a lot earlier,” said county commissioner Dexter Fisher.