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12-year-old arrested for murder: Why do gangs recruit children?

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Brennan Linsley/AP

(Read caption) Former gang member and current Project VOYCE teacher Sir Martin (l.) walks two of his students to a class at Manual High School, in Denver, Colo. on May 21, 2015. Martin joined the non-profit Project VOYCE, which stands for Voices of Youth Changing Education, when he was 16, a year after joining the Crips gang.

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A 12-year-old fugitive who spent more than a week on the run after allegedly killing a man in Nebraska was apprehended Tuesday by the US Marshals Service in Minneapolis.

The young boy is one of three juveniles – ages 12, 15, and 17 – suspected of murdering a 31-year-old man during a drug deal in Omaha on June 29. Police say the three young people had gang ties, although the victim did not. The 12-year-old may have been recruited by the 17-year-old, who is his brother, according to authorities.

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Officials said on Wednesday that this is just one incident in a growing trend of gangs recruiting children to help carry out crimes. According to the National Institute of Justice, the vast majority of people who join gangs do so between the ages of 11 and 15.  

"We are very concerned about older gang members putting pressure on younger members to do their dirty work," said Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer in a statement. "They are barely at the age for intervention." 

Many of these youth-centric gang "crews" are organized by older and more experienced criminals to create a distraction, making it easier for the older gang members to sell drugs unnoticed, according to Lt. Kevin O'Connor, assistant commissioner of the Juvenile Justice Division of the NYPD.

"The older guys are keeping the younger ones around because it creates an atmosphere of violence," said Lt. O'Connor in a statement. "They are using the young people to divert police attention."

According to O'Connor, gangs recruit children in middle school or even elementary school. These young teens have different ways of showing off their allegiance, he says. Rather than simply wearing a certain color to represent their affiliation, kids are now drawing gang symbols all over their backpacks and using bracelets to identify themselves. 

These young gang members have begun to rely heavily on social media to earn respect and establish dominance, says O'Connor. Many use websites like Facebook and Twitter to taunt rivals and initiate conflict.

These websites also serve as a recruitment ground and allow children a glimpse into the world of the older gang members courting them.

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"[Social media] has allowed them to learn about how to become a good gang member," said Bruce Ferrell, a former gang unit officer in Omaha, in an interview with NBC News. "These channels can be used as a way to harass rival gangs or to intimidate people online."

Additionally, he says, gangs use the the allure of hip-hop stardom to recruit young teens by producing and uploading music videos that feature older members counting money, doing drugs, and showing off firearms.

"These kids see it and think they can be an aspiring musician, too," Ferrell said. 

The problem isn't unique to American gangs: in the UK, children as young as seven years old are being lured into street gang membership, The Independent reports.

It's important to recognize early risk factors that could cause a child to become attracted to gang membership, the National Institute of Justice says. A strong family life is the most important deterrent, but participation in preventative programs at a very young age have also proven effective.