msnbc.com news services
updated 5/12/2004 6:11:36 PM ET 2004-05-12T22:11:36

In a computer-age version of “West Side Story,” rival gang members battled it out in the street in a rumble organized over the Internet.

Nearly three dozen people, including 27 high school students, were arrested this week after being indicted in the March 3 brawl in Garland, a Dallas suburb. Several people were injured, including one person who suffered a broken arm. Those arrested could face between two to 20 years in jail if convicted of a second-degree felony relating to the fight.

“Gangs already have their own alphabet, their own language, their own hand signals, so why not use the Internet?” said Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia. “Is this case unusual? Yes. But what I’m afraid is going to happen, this is probably just the beginning of it.”

Using their home computers, the gangs traded insults in a profanity-laced chat room, then decided to fight, setting the time and the place over the Internet, Garland police officer Joe Harn said.

In the skirmish, gang members battled with more old-fashioned weapons — fists, baseball bats, shovels, authorities said.

Detectives used the chat room to help find suspects.

“For the most part, it’s nothing but cursing on it. Some of them actually signed in with their true names, so that helped us identify people,” Harn said.

A videotape made by one of the participants also helped investigators identify those in the brawl. The tape shows numerous people coming to blows in the street while onlookers cheered.

It is relatively common for gangs to use the Internet to threaten and challenge rivals, said Jared Lewis, director of Know Gangs, a Wisconsin-based organization that educates police and the public about gangs.

“This is the first time I’ve heard where you’ve had a fight result, where the gangs actually met,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s happened. It’s just the scale that does surprise me.”

Lewis said that increased use of the Internet by gangs is fueled in part by chat rooms and bulletin boards on gangsta rap artists’ Web sites.

Gang-intelligence officers in Garland, a suburb of more than 200,000, said they plan to pay more attention to Internet sites now.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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