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White supremacist groups in the spotlight after high-profile murders

Violent white supremacist prison gangs have crawled into the national spotlight over recent weeks amid speculation that groups in Texas and Colorado might be linked to the seemingly separate and so far unexplained murders of prominent officials in both states.

Colorado authorities sought two men allegedly associated with the 211 Crew on Thursday, saying they might be connected to the death of department of corrections chief Tom Clements. The top state prisons official was shot dead on March 19, apparently after answering his home doorbell.

And in Texas, where Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife were gunned down in their home, possible involvement by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is among the leads being explored by investigators, federal prosecutors have told NBC News.

Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was slain in a separate shooting about two months earlier.

The 211 Crew began to form in Colorado prisons in 1995, naming themselves after the California penal code designation for robbery. Since then, the gang has grown to include several hundred members and has earned the dubious distinction of being “the dominant racist prison group in Colorado,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League.

Yet, unlike some racist gangs that formed in prisons but have since spilled outside their walls, the 211 Crew has a stronger presence behind bars then out on the streets. Gang members are often tattooed with a “patch” showing the numbers 211, clenched hands holding lightning bolts, and a Norse “othala” rune favored by neo-Nazis, Pitcavage said.

The chief suspect in Clements death, 28-year-old ex-convict Evan Spencer Ebel, is thought to have been a member of the 211 Crew. He died in a shootout with Texas police on March 21. That authorities were seeking other alleged 211 Crew associates in their investigation of Clements’ death was a sign they were probing the extent of the gang’s involvement, Pitcavage said.

While dominant in Colorado, the 211 Crew is small compared to white supremacist prison gangs in some other states.

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was formed in the hothouse racial atmosphere of Texas’ recently desegregated penitentiaries in the 1980s as a coalition between members of two formerly distinct gangs. Despite the name and shared ideology, the group has no official affiliation with one of the granddaddies of white hate gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood gang that coalesced in the California prison systems in the 1960s.

Law enforcement in Texas were keeping the 2,000-strong Aryan Brotherhood of Texas under close observation well before the McLellands' violent deaths. The FBI indicted 34 alleged members of the gang in Houston on racketeering charges in November, a round up authorities called a “devastating blow.” Ten alleged ABT members could face the death penalty if they are convicted, and Texas law enforcement agencies had warned that members might “retaliate.”

The Texas Gang Threat Assessment for 2012, which was released by the state Department of Public Safety, cited the gang’s “large membership numbers and consistent level of violence and other criminal activity.” The gang has also been reported to have ties to drug cartels, the threat assessment released in April noted.

But putting gang members behind bars is not enough to solve the problem, Pitcavage said.

“What happens if you arrest members of the ABT and you put them in prison?” he said. “They exist behind bars just as well as on the streets. They are an extremely difficult problem to deal with.”

And the idea that prisoners join racist gangs for protection is nonsense, Pitcavage said: “The people who do join do so primarily to become predators.”

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas’ allegedly murderous, meth-trafficking members are “considered a prevailing gang that threatens Texas internally,” and have a strong presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Like many gangs they have their own argot, identifying themselves to one another with signs and tattoos. Along with elaborate tattoos bearing Nazi SS lightning bolts and swastikas, gang members sometimes distinguish themselves by using the numbers “12” to signify the letters “AB,” and may call a fully committed gang member “112 percent.”

The Anti-Defamation League said in 2012 that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas had emerged as “one of the largest white supremacist prison gangs in the country.” The group may have surpassed other criminally active hate gangs by knowing when it pays to be racist. The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas constitution says that “business transactions” should take precedence over race-related crimes, according to the ADL.

“Like most of these race-based prison gangs, they are fundamentally a criminal enterprise,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center told MSNBC. “They are certainly white supremacists, but when push comes to shove, that is quickly set aside in the interests of the criminal enterprise.”

Whether either gang was directly involved in the killing of the McLellands, Hasse, or Clements remains unknown. A concrete link between a racist prison gang and a top official in either state would take law enforcement into frightening new territory.

“Racist prison gangs have killed police officers, they’ve killed corrections officers,” Pitcavage said. “But there’s never been a situation prior to the Colorado incident in which a member of a racist prison gang ever killed anyone as high ranking as the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections.”