Two Houston police officers nearly died in a firefight this week with a career criminal from the 52 Hoover Crips.

Days later, two MS-13 gang members laughed outside a courtroom after facing a judge on charges of murder and aggravated kidnapping of young women.

A drive-by shooting in southeast Houston last month sent three men to the hospital.

The violence comes amid a spike in gang-related killings and assaults in recent months. Communities dominated by gangs are reeling as police grapple with a troubling threat and prosecutors vow harsher penalties for gang perpetrators.

“The gang issue we’ve had here in Houston has always been like this,” said HPD Sgt. Clint Ponder, who works in the department’s Gang Intelligence Unit. “It goes through peaks in valleys. And right now we’re seeing an uptick. We’re absolutely seeing an uptick.”

Reasons for the spike are unclear, but law enforcement veterans say light criminal sentencing, a decline in specialized gang units, and the evolving nature of Houston’s gangs from turf-bound cliques into roving, cash-focused enterprises are all potentially to blame.

“People fear these guys,” said Houston Police Officer Doug Griffith, who has worked on an anti-gang task force in southeast Houston for more than 20 years. “This is how they maintain power in their neighborhood, they use fear and intimidation … It’s very sad for residents living in area controlled by these gangs.”

Transnational and homegrown gangs have remained a troubling bane of law enforcement for years.

A Texas Department of Public Safety threat assessment released in January warned of the specific danger posed by transnational gangs such as Tango Blast, the Latin Kings and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

“These groups pose the greatest gang threat to Texas due to their relationships with Mexican cartels, high levels of transnational criminal activity, high levels of violence, and overall statewide presence,” the assessment noted.

Hundreds of smaller, homegrown gangs and cliques pose costly and often lethal threats to Houston communities. Some of the region’s largest, like the Houstones, have hundreds of members. Others may have just a handful of associates.

All told, approximately 20,000 gang members, belonging to at least 300 gangs, live in the Houston region, said FBI Supervisory Agent Mark Sabol, who oversees the agency’s Multi-Agency Gang Task Force in the city’s Texas Anti-Gang Center, where members from local and federal agencies work to address the region’s gang violence. Law enforcement has also created the website to give residents a way to anonymously report gang activity.

Shift in manpower

While the number of gang members has held fairly steady, he said, anti-gang units have seen an uptick in brutal, violent incidents involving MS-13 gang members.

Anti-gang units recently arrested and charged two MS-13 gang members, tying them to a shocking murder last month of a young woman. The two men, Miguel Alvarez-Flores, 22, and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, 18, committed the murder as part of a satanic sacrifice, police said Friday.

“It’s not just a murder. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to shoot someone for a beef,’ it’s ‘I’m going to chop their heads off with a machete, or stab them 22 times and light them on fire and laugh at them while they’re crying for their mother,'” Sabol said. “When I say brutality, that’s what I mean. It’s just incredibly violent and we’re seeing more of that.”

Besides the most recent murder the gang has been tied to, MS-13 gang members have also been blamed in recent years for the execution of Jose Meraz, a 14-year-old north Houston boy, after he tried to disassociate from the gang and start going to church. A year before, gang members killed a 16-year-old Klein Forest high school student and left his body in a state forest near Huntsville.

The gang’s brutality stems in part from the desensitization of its members, many of whom come from violence plagued cities in El Salvador, where more than 6,000 people were killed last year, and where children as young as 9 can be forced into joining gangs, Sabol said.

Among local gangs, anti-gang officers are seeing “a moderate increase” in aggravated assaults and murders, he said.

One area where authorities have noticed such an uptick is in southeast Houston, where a spate of gang-related shootings and murders has forced police to move units from other areas of the city to bring the violence under control.

On Feb. 23, for example, one drive-by shooter hit three people outside a convenience store near Southlawn and Faulkner. It was just one of the 10 to 15 shootings the area has seen in the last two months, said Southeast Patrol Capt. Kevin Deese, who oversees the district where much of the violence has occurred.

Police are still trying to figure out what provoked the recent mayhem, he said.

“We’ve been trying to figure out the catalyst on why things increased,” he said in a recent interview. “The hardest thing in these shootings is that they’re not happening in any specific location. We can’t really predict where the next will take place.”

Police have also been challenged by a shift in local crews, he said. Previously, many local American gangs fought over turf, colors, and flags or symbols, with well-known rivalries, most notably with groups like the Bloods and Crips.

But in Houston, police say, those local rivalries and deep loyalties have faded as gangs work together to make money.

“Here, criminals can be in whatever gang but can get along,” he said. “It’s all about making money.”

With the willingness of different groups to work together, it can make it harder for police to identify gang members.

“One of the biggest things is that gangs don’t look like gangs anymore,” Deese said. There’s much less structure, so it’s harder to track.”

On the other hand, he said, many gangs or cliques do not have the structure or mentorship they might have in years past.

“It’s more fly by the seat of their pants,” he said. “It’s more sloppy.”

Despite the fact they are less infamous than transnational gangs like MS-13, they are still a serious public safety problem, said Lisa Collins, chief prosecutor of the gang unit in the Harris County District Attorney’s Gangs and Organized Crimes Division.

“Don’t underestimate the lower level cliques,” said Collins. “They do just as much as damage, and sometimes more so.”

Anti-gang efforts have been complicated, however, by the police department’s lack of manpower and by gang members’ ability to return to the streets soon after being arrested, law enforcement veterans said.

Previously, each patrol station was staffed with both divisional gang units and a gang task force.

Public support crucial

Over the past years, gang task force members have shifted to tactical operations units, leading to fewer officers working gangs, less intelligence gathering, and wariness by residents in cooperating with police and prosecutors.

“We definitely need bodies and people to do that,” said Ponder, the HPD gang sergeant. “If you’re really working gangs and doing it correctly, it’s not about statistics … It’s about intelligence, so when you have a big pattern of crime or a big series of crimes you already have that gang intelligence to put them in jail, that’s really what we’re lacking here.”

Police say another problem reining in illegal gang violence is the quickness with which some criminals are able to return to the streets.

That was one issue police pointed to after the shooting of Houston police officers Ronny Cortez and Jose Muñoz this week. Earl Donnell Riley, the 25-year-old shooter, had recently completed a three-year sentence after being convicted of on felony burglary and illegal weapons possession charges. In the last seven years, he had been arrested for multiple burglaries, marijuana, driving while intoxicated, felony possession of a weapon, criminal mischief, trespassing and evading arrest.

“We investigate crimes, we put them away,” Ponder said. “The DA does something else, granted we’re upset they’re not getting the time we believe they’re due and they deserve, but that’s out of our control.”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg vowed recently to crack down on gang violence with harsher prosecutions and stiffer penalties for gang members sowing mayhem across the city.

“We are going to seek stiff penalties against violent gang members: heftier charges, higher bonds and harsher sentences,” said Ogg, who previously worked as Houston’s Anti-Gang Task Force Director and wrote a book on community efforts to fight gangs. “Regarding gang members, these are the people we need to pull out of the pack. Gang members pose a greater threat together than they do as individuals, because of their collective strength, access to bail money, weapons, and the ability to intimidate witnesses.”

Both police and prosecutors say the public’s help is their best tool fighting gangs and the mayhem they sow.

“We want to help. We want to make these situations better, but we’re only as good as the info we receive,” Collins said. “And it does take the community cooperating with us to hopefully start to see a downturn in these types of offenses.”

Source Houston Chronicle