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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March, 2005, 14:25 GMT
'Urban terrorism' of gangs
By Peter Wilson
BBC Midlands Home Affairs Correspondent

The Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew are urban terrorists.

The drive-by shootings, intimidation, drug dealing and use of ultra forms of violence can be compared with the paramilitary gangs in Northern Ireland.

On one side, like the IRA, the Burgers are better organised and better funded than the Johnson Crew and because of that, equipped with more powerful weaponry.

Policeman at the scene of a shooting
People are 'sickened' by the shootings and are helping police

The men accused of the murders of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis are believed to have been members of the Burgers.

Meanwhile on the other side, rival group the Johnsons are more like the Loyalists - there are more of them than the Burgers, they are younger and are split into several factions with names like the Cash Money Crew and the Raiders.

The gangs got their names from two cafes in Handsworth where black youths congregated in the late 80s and early 90s.

The Burger Bar was on the Soho Road while the Johnson café was in Heathfield road.

Yardie gangsters

Legend has it that both gangs were friends and that they fell out over a bet on who won a game of "Streetfighter" on the Playstation.

By the late 90s, these computer games had moved off the screen and out on to the streets.

The killings began in the last days of 1995 as these young men fought off Yardie gangsters.

They copied the Jamaican gangs' ruthless disregard for life and reckless use of guns and violence.

Because of their public nature innocent people would witness the violence
Peter Wilson

Police viewed the gangs as level one crime - local drug dealing, particularly involving crack cocaine, robberies, and kidnappings.

Intelligence and understanding of what was happening on the streets of Birmingham was thin, as the gangs were veiled in secrecy.

Loose affiliations that shifted and changed constantly, were the hallmarks of how they worked.

Many of the shootings took place outside nightclubs and community centres, where the Johnsons and the Burgers would cross each others path.

Because of their public nature innocent people would witness the violence, often having to step over dead bodies, and become caught up in the intimidatory tactics of the gangs.

Witness intimidation

It was no surprise people would keep quiet and refuse to help the police.

The gangs grew powerful and arrogant. Feeling untouchable, they sometimes drove around their streets brandishing weapons.

When the police did try to bring court cases against them, they would often collapse because of witness intimidation.

The former Burger Bar cafe on the Soho Road
The Burger Bar Boys allegedly took their name from this former cafe

In 2000, Operation Ventara was set up after the killing of Cory Wayne Allen.

He had links with both the Johnsons and the Burgers but his family say he was trying to call a truce to stop the killings when he was shot dead.

Ventara built up a picture of gang-based intelligence designed to stem the tide of shootings in the black community.

The murders of Letisha and Charlene outside the New Year's Party in Aston shocked even hardened criminals.

It galvanised the police and resources have poured into the war on gangs.

People are sickened by the shootings and are now helping the police to clear up several cases.

Gangs have been hit hard and a number of prominent members arrested and convicted.

But there is still a long way to go. Even during the trial into the Ellis and Shakespeare killings, the shootings continued.

In January, for example, a lone gunman entered a café near Aston and four young men, believed to have links with the Johnson Crew, were shot.

Innocent people

Shots were later fired at a house linked to the Burger Bar Boys.

One gang member told BBC News he always wears a bullet-proof vest and never lets his son travel in his car for fear that he might be sprayed with bullets.

Gangsters' lives, although glamorised in the movies, are full of fear and paranoia.

People want a way out but for some, the easy criminal money and the close friendships with their "crews" are too ingrained.

The gangs shoot for what are sometimes referred to as the three R's - revenge, revenue and respect.

To break the gangs is not a job just for the police but a partnership that demands the involvement of all types of agencies and groups in the West Midlands.

If it is ignored, another massacre will take place and innocent people will get caught up in the senseless tit-for-tat violence.

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