A recent spate of graffiti on buildings, bridges, sidewalks and stop signs in Winston-Salem’s West End, and throughout the rest of the city, is the work of a local street gang, according to the Winston-Salem Police Department.
The graffiti, which has appeared as “Cuaji,” “Cuaji-13” or “CLS” is the work of the hispanic gang Cuaji-13, a local affiliate of the notorious Sureños, or Sur-13 gang, according to police Sgt. Tyler Walley of the department’s gang unit.
“We’ve been experiencing a rash of those graffiti taggings popping up around Reynolds High School and Hanes Park and Academy Street,” Walley said. “And it’s just incessant. It’s such a quick crime of opportunity. They can get away in around a minute after doing their tag. “
Taggers are difficult to catch and often can’t be caught unless there is video surveillance or an eyewitness who got a plate number for the vehicle that taggers left in, Walley said.
In this most recent spate, Walley said, authorities have arrested five juveniles after a Winston-Salem Park Ranger developed probable cause linking them to the Cuaji-13 tags. Because they are under the age of 18, their names and other identifying factors will not be released, pursuant to state law.
Cuaji-13 got its start locally in 2001 at R.J. Reynolds High School, according to congressional testimony in 2006 from Brandon Holland, who was then the director of the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Zero Armed Perpetrators Program.
In 2006, Holland testified the gang had been responsible for shootings and other gun crimes.
Walley did not provide information on the current activities of Cuaji-13 but did acknowledge an uptick in their presence in the city. Traditionally, Winston-Salem has been a Sur-13 city, Walley said, and their presence continues to grow.
On an international level, Sur-13 is aligned with the Mexican Mafia — as are most Hispanic gangs with a 13 at the end of their names, because the letter “M” is the 13th letter of the alphabet and the M represents the Mexican Mafia.
In the case of Cuaji-13, members traditionally are from Cuajinicuilapa, Mexico, according to Holland’s testimony. However, that isn’t the case for its members in 2019, according to Walley.
“If they befriend someone or think someone is cool, or down to ride, they’re pretty relaxed,” Walley said of Cuaji-13’s membership requirement. “It doesn’t matter if they’re not from Cuaji.”
Winston-Salem Park Maintenance Supervisor Wayne Belcher, whose department is in charge of removing the graffiti, said he’s seen more gang tags this year than he has in any of his nine years with the city.
“It’s at an all-time high,” Belcher said. “It’s been like as soon as we remove it, the graffiti is back.”
Typically, the police will document the gang tags in city parks, and then Belcher and his team can remove it, he said.
Hanes Park is repeatedly targeted because of its visibility and convenience to Reynolds High School, Walley said.
While gang tags can be frightening, they do not necessarily mean a gang is claiming the area tagged as part of its turf or that something bad will happen in the neighborhood, Walley said.
“It’s like letting everyone know we’re here and we’re bad ass,” Walley said.
The gangs, in this case Cuaji-13, are advertising, and the tags are often the work of younger, new members who want to prove their worth.
“They’re starting to become devout, and they’re trying to show their loyalty,” Walley said of the taggers. “Typically it’s going to be your younger members that are just starting to get their feet wet in the gang.”
Tom Dixon, a veterinarian with a practice on the city’s south side, is no stranger to the graffiti. He said his building, at the intersection of S. Main Street and Anderson Drive, has been regularly tagged by gangs over the last four years. While graffiti, and specifically gang tags, are common on the south side, Dixon is especially targeted, he feels.
“It’s got what I feel like is more graffiti on it than any building in south side,” Dixon said.
Dixon said it costs $1,000 to remove the tags, and estimates he’s had to clean them off seven times. Recently, Dixon said, the graffiti is increasing, having been tagged three times since November.
He reports the tagging to police each time, installed motion lights on the building exterior and even has a camera in place. Nothing seems to work.
“I even took spray paint and (wrote) smile for the camera, and pointed to the camera,” Dixon said. “I put it in Spanish and they still put it there.”