HOUSTON — Clown faces. Red shoe laces. The Houston skyline. The Texans logo. A dog paw.
It might look like a random list, but It’s not. These are all symbols worn by Houston-area gangs. And parents need to pay attention.
Gangs are running rampant in Houston-area streets and they’re in our schools too.
Upscale neighborhoods, suburbs and small towns aren’t immune to the problem.
“They are selling drugs to our kids, shooting up our neighborhoods, invading our homes, robbing our banks and stores, stealing our identities, our money, and instilling fear and violence everywhere they go,” according to the FBI.
It’s easier than ever for the gangs to recruit new members through social media and video-sharing websites.
RELATED: City officials speak out about combating gang violence
RELATED: See how many gang crimes are in your neighborhood
Like child predators, they often prey on kids who are lonely and seeking attention.
Some school districts sweep the problem under the rug, but Pasadena ISD is facing it head-on. They compiled a list of banned, potentially gang-related items that every parent should read.
We’ve added additional gang-related symbols, words, letters and numbers provided by stophoustongangs.org
Many of the items are also popular with non-gang members, so parents need to look at the big picture.
CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES Bandanas: It’s no secret that bandanas are often associated with gangs and most districts banned them years ago. If your kid insists on wearing them outside of school, you should start asking questions.
Colors: The same applies if he or she favors wearing the same color all the time and refuses to wear other common colors. Houston-area gang colors include red, blue, black, white and green. Some gangs don’t have a color and others have backed off wearing them to fool police.
Pants: Baggy pants, overly starched pants or pants worn below the waist; rolling up either pant leg or gathering and folding the bottom pant cuff; Dickies brand
Shoelaces: Red or blue shoe laces, untied shoelaces (this is also a fashion trend so don’t panic if your son or daughter is doing it)
Sports attire: Pasadena ISD bans all college and professional sport teams’ attire, unless approved by the school. This includes the old-school Houston Astros open or broken star logo associated with a well-known Houston gang. The ban includes the Houston Texans logo, Houston Rockets logo and the Houston Oilers logo.
Gang paraphernalia: Any and all items with gang symbols, hand signs, initials and names which depict violence or violent behavior affiliated with gang membership that are on clothing, belts, belt buckles, shoes or jewelry
Belts: According to stophoustongangs.org, long white or black belts are worn by some gangs.
Rosaries: The Rosary used as a necklace or any religious depictions mixed with gang symbols; HPD specifies white or black rosaries are tied to Houston gangs
Black rosary, belt Houston police say black rosaries and long black belts are worn by certain Houston gangs. stophoustongangs.org Others: Any clothing depicting gangs, mobsters, drugs, alcohol, or firearms; anything depicting the Houston skyline unless approved by the school; Confederate flag or swastika emblems
SYMBOLS USED BY GANGS Gangs use a variety of symbols to identify themselves and some will surprise you.
Pitchfork pointing up or down
The Joker playing card
“Smile now … cry later” masks
Three-pointed or five-pointed crowns
Five-pointed or six-pointed stars; five-pointed star with the letter “H” within or on top of the star
Three dots in a triangle formation
Satanic symbols such as pentagrams or the devil’s head; Pasadena ISD also bans skull rings, another popular fashion trend
Additional gang symbols from stophoustongangs.org: Flames; pyramid; Nickle coin; Texas capitol building; 3D star with ATX; B, C, M, P, LP or TP hand signs; solid star with outline; crossed 45-calibur pistols; finger pointing gun; heart with horns and devil’s tail; palm trees shaped in V; Spurs logo; cartoon cholo; #21 in five-point star; hollow star with outline; devil’s pitchfork; Texans logo
Gang symbol notebooks Gang symbols, numbers and letters might be found on notebooks, drawings, photos, pictures, decals, stickers, backpacks, binders, folders, book covers, even toys. stophoustongangs.org WORDS BLOOD
At 18 years old, Walton might not seem to have the criminal or physical profile that one might expect would come with being named “The Most Wanted Gang Fugitive,” by a coalition of 14 law enforcement agencies that form stophoustongangs.org. Don’t be deceived. Sometimes the gang fugitives are wanted for what they have allegedly done as part of a plan to stop them from escalating to something worse, authorities have said.
“The size of a criminal means little when you’re looking down the barrel of a handgun, ” said Special Agent Shauna Dunlap of the FBI’s Houston Division, which oversees the Web site. ”When a weapon is used in the commission of a crime, it always increases the chance for escalated violence.” Walton is wanted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He is charged following a Sept. 29 fight in which he allegedly pointed a handgun at a woman who pulled her son away from a group of 10 to 15 people, including Walton. With his finger on the trigger, Walton allegedly warned her that she was ”going to catch a hot one,” if she didn’t back away, according to court papers.
New York –Juan Elias Garcia, wanted for the execution style murders of 19-year-old Vanessa Argueta and her 2-year-old son Diego Torres on February 4, 2010, voluntarily returned to the United States to face charges. Special Agents of the FBI arrested Garcia upon his arrival in the United States today. Garcia was placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list on March 26, 2014.
In coordination with the Nicaraguan authorities, the FBI’s Panama City Legal Attache Office and the Regional Security Office of the U.S. Embassy in Managua, the FBI sent an aircraft to transport Garcia to New York. Garcia’s surrender was the result of an extensive and well coordinated investigation by the FBI’s New York Field Office, the FBI Legal Attaché and special agents of the Diplomatic Security Service assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. Garcia is expected to be presented in the Eastern District of New York on March 31, 2014.
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office, George Venizelos said, “Juan Elias Garcia was placed on the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list because of the heinous nature of his crimes. News media outlets, both domestic and abroad, displayed Garcia’s photograph to members of the public hoping someone would turn him in. The pressure generated by this publicity was too much for Garcia to bear, resulting in his surrender and return to the United States. While his surrender underscores the importance publicity can play in capturing a wanted fugitive, it is also a testament to the vigilance and dedication of the FBI agents and members of the Long Island Gang Task Force who never stopped looking for Garcia.” ADIC Venizelos thanked United States Attorney Loretta E. Lynch and the Eastern District of New York, the FBI Panama City and San Salvador Legal Attache Offices, the U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama, the FBI San Salvador Transnational Anti-Gang Unit and the Nicaraguan National Police for their assistance in Garcia’s return to the United States.
United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta E. Lynch said, “Four years ago last month, Juan Garcia lured Vanessa Argueta and her young son Diego Torres to their deaths in the woods of Long Island. Since then Garcia has evaded justice for his crimes, but his days as a fugitive are over. As a result of the tremendous dedication of the FBI and their law enforcement partners, Garcia has been captured and will be returned to Long Island, where he will be prosecuted for the heinous crimes that he and his fellow MS-13 gang members committed. We hope his capture brings some measure of consolation to the Argueta and Torres families.” Ms. Lynch extended her sincere appreciation to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies who assisted with Garcia’s capture and return to the United States.
Garcia, a member of the violent street gang MS-13, was wanted in connection with the murders of Argueta and Torres. After a dispute between Argueta and Garcia, rival gang members allegedly threatened violence against Garcia. When Garcia explained to fellow MS-13 members Adalberto Ariel Guzman and Rene Mendez Mejia, that he had been threatened by members of the rival gang as a result of information he believed Argueta had provided, they obtained permission from their leader, Heriberto Martinez, to retaliate against Argueta. On February 4, 2010, rather than go to dinner as planned, Garcia drove Argueta and Torres to a wooded area in Central Islip, New York. Once they were in the woods, Garcia shot Argueta in the chest and Mejia shot Argueta in the head with a .22 caliber handgun. They then turned the gun over to Guzman, who shot 2-year old Torres twice in the head. On February 5, 2010, the bodies of Argueta and her son were found in a wooded area in Central Islip, New York.
The FBI has legal attaché offices in more than 70 cities worldwide, providing coverage for more than 200 countries, territories and islands. Each office is established through mutual agreement with the host country and is situated in the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in that nation.
HOUSTON, TX - Just two days after Crime Stopper of Houston joined with the FBI and numerous additional local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in support of the Houston Gang Task Force, StopHoustonGangs.org's recently featured fugitive is in custody thanks to a TIP to Crime Stoppers.
On Wednesday, April 24, 2013, Crime Stoppers Executive Director Rania Mankarious took the podium at a joint press conference with the FBI, Houston Police Department, Harris County Sheriff's Office, Harris County District Attorney's office, the US Attorney's Office and other area law enforcement agencies. Representatives from the aforementioned agencies joined forces to lend their support to the anti-gang efforts behind the FBI's StopHoustonGangs.org project. The website, which has been in operation for two years, features wanted gang fugitives and serves as an educational tool for the community at large. Wednesday's press conference celebrated the ongoing success of StopHoustonGangs.org and announced the marriage between Crime Stoppers of Houston and their program.
As of Wednesday, callers to Crime Stoppers' TIP line 713-222-TIPS were offered up to $5,000 in cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of StopHoustonGangs.org featured fugitives. At Wednesday's press conference Director Mankarious announced the profile of this week's wanted gang fugitive, Gus Matthew Soto. Soto was charged with the aggravated robbery of a Montgomery County citizen, and was believed to be hiding in the Houston Area.
On Friday, April 26, 2013, a TIP was received by Crime Stoppers of Houston. The TIP was forwarded to Deputies with the US Marshal's Gulf Coast Violent Offenders and Fugitive Task Force, who promptly took Soto into custody. Were it not for the marriage of StopHoustonGangs.org and Crime Stoppers of Houston, Soto may have continued to evade authorities and abscond from justice.
Photos of the arrest are available via the Crime Stoppers YouTube channel via: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4hPMYpC04o&feature=youtu.be
Anyone with information about location of StopHoustonGangs.org featured gang fugitives is asked to contact Crime Stoppers of Houston at (713) 222-TIPS (8477).
Crime Stoppers will pay up to $5,000 for any information called in to the 713-222-TIPS (8477) or submitted online at www.crime-stoppers.org that leads to the filing of felony charges or arrest of gang fugitives and offenders in our jurisdiction. Tips can also be sent by text message. Text TIP610 plus your tip to CRIMES (274637). All tipsters remain anonymous.
Houstonians are working hand-in-hand with Houston area local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities in the fight against gang crime. Thirty-five gang fugitives featured on the www.stophoustongangs.org website, and publicized weekly by local media and on Houston area digital billboards, have been captured within the past year.
Since the website went public in September of 2010, more than 1700 tips have come in through the website, and more than 600 related arrests have been made. To date, the innovative website especially created to improve communication between law enforcement and the public, has been visited more than 200,000 times. Now, an enhanced partnership with Crime Stoppers will reward citizens with cash for tips that lead to an arrest or the filing of felony charges.
The website has proven to be an effective crime fighting tool, and its reach has stretched far beyond Houston! Wanted FBI fugitive Raul Sergio Madrigal was indicted on federal drug trafficking charges on January 14, 2009. Madrigal eluded authorities for more than three years and was believed to have fled the United States. After being featured and publicized as the website’s weekly most wanted fugitive on May 3, 2012, a promising tip was submitted to the website. On May 22, 2012, law enforcement authorities in Mexico, working together with agents from the FBI and DEA, arrested Madrigal in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. He was extradited back to the United States on November 15, 2012. He is currently awaiting trial in Houston, Texas.
On September 22, 2012, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office filed Capital Murder charges on Harold Joseph Brown. Brown was wanted for fatally shooting three people and wounding a 77 year old man at a night club located at 9541 Mesa in Houston, Texas. After leads to locate Brown were exhausted, he was featured and publicized as the website’s weekly most wanted fugitive on September 27, 2012. Houston Police officers captured Brown later the same day, after numerous tips to the website led to his arrest.
Beginning January 13, 2013, wanted murder fugitive Henry Demond Dorsey was featured and publicized as the website’s weekly most wanted fugitive. Dorsey was charged in the fatal shooting of a Houston man outside of a northwest Harris County night club located at 4714 West FM 1960 on December 9, 2012. Four others were wounded in the shooting, but survived. As the result of an anonymous tip, officers of the U.S. Marshal’s Gulf Coast Violent Offenders and Fugitives Task Force arrested Dorsey on February 26, 2013.
The following law enforcement and community leaders announced the large scale successes and enhanced partnership with Crime Stoppers of Houston at a press conference today: Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Stephen L. Morris; Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr.; Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia; Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson; United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson of the Southern District of Texas; Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Javier F. Peña; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent in Charge Melvin King, Jr.; Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Brian Moskowitz; United States Marshal Elizabeth Saenz; Federal Bureau of Prisons Warden Annette Gordon; Texas Department of Criminal Justice Office of Inspector General Inspector Bruce Toney; Texas Department of Public Safety Region 2 Commander Philip Duane Steen; Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal Investigations Division Major George E. Rhyne, Jr.; City of Houston Mayor’s Anti Gang Office Director Patricia Harrington; Crime Stoppers of Houston Director Rania Mankarious; Clear Channel Outdoor Vice President Lee Vela; and other officers and agents of the Houston area Multi-Agency Gang Task Force (MAGTF).
The newest feature to the website is a link to Crime Stoppers of Houston. Crime Stoppers of Houston will pay up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and charging of any felony suspects. Tips can be submitted to Crime Stoppers of Houston by calling 713-222-TIPS (8477) or by texting TIP610 plus your tip to CRIMES (274637) or online at www.crime-stoppers.org. All tipsters will remain anonymous.
As a public service to the community, Clear Channel Outdoor has donated space and time on their digital billboards throughout the area to publicize each week’s featured fugitive. This week’s fugitive, Gus Matthew Soto, being featured on digital billboards and the www.stophoustonhangs.org website, is wanted for Aggravated Robbery.
In the Houston area, more than 20,000 documented gang members belonging to more than 300 gangs have been documented by area law enforcement agencies. There are approximately 1.4 million gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs in the United States.
The Stop Houston Gangs website is an educational resource for anyone wishing to learn more about Houston area gang crime and anti-gang efforts, or to report criminal gang activity, visit www.stophoustongangs.org.
Giant billboards around the Houston area have featured detailed digital photos of 55 violent gang fugitives and led to the capture of 35 of them in the past year.
Now the successful www.stophoustongangs.org program is adding a cash component. The public can also collect a reward of up to $5,000 for tips that lead to these arrests through a partnership with Houston's Crime Stoppers, law enforcement authorities announced Wednesday.
Tips from the public are critical in the push to dismantle the 300 gangs with some 20,000 members in the Houston region, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said.
"Some have called just to be a good citizen," he said. "But now someone can do it for the money, too."
An alleged member of the Texas Syndicate prison gang is believed to be on the run in the Houston area, but it will likely be harder than ever for Gus Matthew Soto to hide.
Gus Matthew Soto is next up to be the focus of a stophoustongangs.org media blitz that is run in conjunction with the FBI and an array of other law enforcement agencies.
The campaign, which has captured 35 gang fugitives in the past year, includes putting his face on the Internet and television as as well as roadside billboards in the Houston area.
Soto, 27, is accused of using a gun during a robbery in Montgomery County in February.
His alleged victim escaped, and told authorities that Soto was going to kill him for being a rival gang member.
Here’s how DPS describes the incident in a bulletin:
On February 8, 2013, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant for Soto’s arrest for Aggravated Robbery after he and an accomplice assaulted and robbed a victim at gunpoint. According to the victim, Soto thought he was a member of a rival gang and intended to kill him before the victim escaped.
With his prior felonies, just having a gun would be a crime with guaranteed prison time for Soto.
He is said to be a confirmed member of the Texas Syndicate, a powerful Latino-driven gang that was born in this state’s prison system. Among the gang’s tattoos are what look like Texas Longhorn emblems.
Here is how the Texas Syndicate was described by the U.S. Department of Justice in a brief online profile. It notes the gang is big, strong and has ties on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as well as with Mexican drug cartels
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A man wanted in the fatal shooting of an innocent bystander during a fight outside a nightclub has been arrested.
Henry Demond Dorsey is charged with murder and believed to have shot as many as five people during a fight outside Club Le Cave in northwest Harris County on December 9, 2012. One of those allegedly shot by Dorsey was Timothy Powell, who was not involved in the fight. Powell was killed. Dorsey, 19, was arrested yesterday after being on the run since the murder. He is being held on $50,000 bond in the Harris County Jail. No details of his arrest were released by the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Court records show Dorsey has previous convictions for evading police and assault.
There are more than 200 gangs operating in the metropolitan Houston area, and the minority community has reason for concern. Blacks and Hispanics make up 90 percent of gang members, and many belong to gangs that thrive on criminal activity.
The community, however, can help keep its families and neighborhoods safe by putting a stop to Houston's gang activity, and the crime and violence that often accompanies it. One way is by submitting anonymous tips online to stophoustongangs.org, while becoming more educated about the problem. The brainchild of members of the Houston-area Multi-Agency Gang Task Force (MAGTF), stophoustongangs.org has taken a sizeable bite out of gang-related crime in Houston and surrounding areas, and offers a bevy of useful information geared toward parents, educators and youth.
Along with information on gangs operating in the metropolitan Houston area, the site provides information on gang initiation tactics, gang vernacular, warning signs of possible gang activity, prevention services offered by various local agencies, and a list of things communities can do to curb gang activity - of which Houston has an alarming amount. Program organizers believe the website's impact has room to grow. The overall objective of stophoustongangs.org is to disrupt and dismantle the most significant criminal gangs in Houston and the surrounding area, a lofty vision broken down into two main parts.
"The website is unique in that it has two goals: to educate the public about gangs so they can recognize their activities and the signs in their own children signaling potential gang involvement," said FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap.
"The second goal is to provide a way for residents to anonymously report any potential or committed gang related crimes or activities from the comfort and safety of their homes, without fear of retaliation." Dunlap said the very real fear of a person's name showing up on a police report after reporting suspicious activity, or the danger of being targeted by neighborhood gangs, or gang members in their own family proved to be a huge deterrent to many who wanted to notify police.
That fear, and the desire to provide the public with a gang information education vehicle that operated 24/7, served as the impetus for stophoustongangs.org. "During the monthly meetings of the MAGTF, we had this idea of a 24-hour tip line, an 800 number. This idea evolved as we realized more and more people are online. Thus, the site was born," said Dunlap. And it's been effective. "In terms of tips, we get a little bit of everything, not just gang stuff - robberies, prostitution, thefts," said HPD Lt. Craig Williams who serves as one of the efforts chief organizers. "The site started out with a bang about two years ago, died off a little, and has since been rejuvenated."
"The website has been working. It has a tracker that lists the number of leads we've received - 1,389 tips - and the 316 arrests that have been made directly attributable to those tips," said Dunlap, who along with Williams, have noticed the tips received are getting better, with information that can lead to arrests. Dunlap says the site will soon reach 200,000 visitors. According to Williams, HPD and other law enforcement agencies document gangs using a gang tracker database with each run-in with a gang member.
"We're approaching roughly 20,000 gangsters in Houston and surrounding areas," said Williams, emphasizing that the issue of gangs is not related to any one racial or economic demographic. "No neighborhood is immune to gang activity. We have gangs in the suburbs, in rural areas on the outskirts of the city. Anyone is susceptible to becoming a gang member," said Williams, who urges parents to keep abreast of their children's activities, and to educate themselves on gangs in their area.
Nationally, there are approximately 1.4 million gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs. "Sixty-to-80 percent of all crimes committed in a given area are attributed to gangs," said Dunlap, "and 60 percent of all gang members will be dead or in prison by the age of 20." To fortify the website's impact, a new offering was added to the information bullets and revealing videos on every gang-related subject imaginable. A new "Fugitive of the Week" is posted on the site every Thursday listing the individual's height, weight, aliases, and crimes, along with a mug shot with the intent of removing yet another gang member off Houston streets.
Williams believes the site also encourages more effective prevention at the front end. "Older kids recruit the younger kids into gangs, so any kid can be solicited if you don't pay attention to what your kids are doing. This happens in middle-class and poor families. "So look at the website and educate yourself about particular gangs in your area, and about what you can do to stop your child from becoming a gang member. And if you see, know or suspect a gang crime, report it," he said
Houston-area streets are active with a growing number of gang members, with police saying there are almost 20,000 in the region, an increase of 29 percent since 2010.
The number of gangs identified by law enforcement in the area has also grown - 296, up from 260 in the same time period, according to recently released data.
Capt. Dale Brown, head of the Houston Police Department's gang division, acknowledged the increase in gang members, but said it mirrors a yearly average increase ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent.
"My main thing here is not to alarm the public. What happens is somebody throws a number out there . and then people react to that and say that's a terribly large number and our gang problem is out of control, and that just couldn't be further from the truth," Brown said. "Total confirmed gang crime in the city of Houston is still less than 5 percent of our total reported crime."
Brown said HPD is doing a better job of identifying gang incidents and documenting members, which would result in more reported gang activity.
The issue has prompted former Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford, now a City Council member, to propose reducing the number of cadets by 10 in two of the department's 70-member academy classes each year.
The estimated savings of $1.6 million in trainee pay could be used to fund a coordinated after-school program that would thwart gang recruitment, Bradford suggested.
"You can see the alarm I'm trying to sound: going from 15,000 to 19,000 in just two and half years - that's huge," Bradford said, referring to the increase in gang members.
The HPD gang statistics were provided by Police Chief Charles McClelland after Bradford requested them, and he provided them to the Houston Chronicle.
No support for idea
Bradford said the city is "losing the battle" to provide effective after-school programs that would slow gang recruitment, adding that parents should be able to get neighborhood-specific information regarding various programs offered.
"We need to really, really do something different than we have been doing in the past, and I'm trying my best and haven't been able to successfully get someone in the city of Houston as a full-time youth coordinator," Bradford said.
However, Bradford's proposal has been nixed by McClelland, Mayor Annise Parker and by the police union.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, called Bradford's proposal to reduce the academy classes "crazy," noting that the HPD is barely keeping pace with attrition.
"I can't believe that anybody on City Council believes we have enough police officers on the streets," Hunt said. "For someone to propose that is absolutely ridiculous. I'm not opposed to after-school funding, but that has to come from other sources - it can't come from HPD cadets."
County, HPD not idle
Hunt said 40 percent of the current 5,300-member force is now eligible to retire. He said the academy classes barely keep up with the 120 to 150 officers who leave HPD each year.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said her office is helping to establish a regional gang enforcement center to fight gang proliferation.
HPD has a youth mentoring program, a gang education unit that visits schools, and participates in the successful multi-agency StopHoustonGangs.org website, Brown noted.
Gangs younger, meaner
Lykos said Houston's economic prosperity, its proximity to Mexico and its role as a hub for global trade has made it a magnet for organized crime.
Local gangs are known to work with transnational criminal rings and are involved in crimes such as dog fighting, murder, human trafficking, home invasions, extortion, money laundering, kidnapping and drug trafficking, Lykos said.
"We have the most gangs in Texas, with 55 percent estimated to be multi-state or transnational," she said, referring to the Houston-Harris County area.
"Threat assessments note that local gang members are becoming younger and more violent, especially toward law enforcement, and that recruitment is at an all-time high," the district attorney said.
HOUSTON - Alleged members or associates of the notorious Texas Mexican Mafia (TMM) prison gang have been indicted for trafficking in heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, firearms violations and for distributing explosive materials, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced today along with FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen L. Morris and Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Steve McCraw.
Those arrested today are alleged members or associates of the TMM gang who allegedly make money by trafficking heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine and by selling firearms.
Among those charged included Michael Mares, 50, an Onalaska police officer who knowingly provided firearms to a convicted felon on two occasions, according to the indictment.
Also taken into custody in the Houston area were Robert Arechiga, 34, Alexander Garcia, 39, Adam Guzman, 43, George Maldonado, 45, Jorge Montemayor, 36, Juan Sarmientos, 45, Tony Valdez, 37, and Michael Villarreal, 32. They are expected to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy tomorrow. Ruben Esparza, 34, was arrested today in the Corpus Christi area where he will make his initial appearance before being transferred to Houston, while Jose Cerda, 26, and Michael A. Villarreal, 22, were taken into custody in the San Antonio area. Francisco Galvan, 46, was taken into custody just moments ago at the Texas-Mexico border.
Three others - Carlos Romero, 30, Gilbert Gonzalez, 41, and Enrique Bravo, 38 - are considered fugitives and a warrant remains outstanding for their arrests. Photos are attached. Anyone with information as to their whereabouts is asked to contact the FBI at 713-693-5000. Anonymous tips can also be provided through the website www.stophoustongangs.org.
Also charged in this case are Juan Deluna, 40, Johnny Reyes, 51, Ricardo Sanchez, 33, Valentin Ayala-Guiterrez, 51, Ernesto Villarreal, 35, Eric Gomez, 36, Armando Villarreal III, 23, Rene Gonzalez, 44, and Alvin Valadaz, 42. These nine defendants are currently in custody and are expected to appear before a U.S. magistrate judge on these charges in the near future.
According to the 22-count indictment, the TMM formed in the early 1980s in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
The indictment alleges the defendants conspired with one another and others from 2008 through October 2012 to procure illegal drugs and distribute the drugs to numerous associates involved in drug trafficking in order to carry out the business of the gang. Alleged gang members also illegally sold numerous assault rifles, other guns and even detonation cord during the course of the investigation, according to the indictment.
The four-year investigation resulted in the return of a sealed indictment Oct. 4, 2012, which was unsealed following the execution of arrest warrants early this morning.
If convicted of the conspiracy charge, the defendants face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment and a $10 million fine. All substantive counts carry an equal or lesser possible sentence depending upon the amount of drugs involved.
The charges are the result of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation which included agents and officers with the FBI, DPS, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Police Departments in Baytown, Houston, Pasadena and Katy, Bureau of Prisons, Harris County Sheriff's Office, TDCJ-Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The cases will be prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Tim S. Braley and Mark Donnelly.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.
With an old-school idea and a few modern twists, most of Houston's "Top Ten Most Wanted Gang Fugitives" have been captured within the past 100 days.
With their faces pushed through cyberspace and plastered on donated roadside billboards boards, the public was called on to anonymously go to their computers, smartphones or tablets to share online tips on the gangsters' whereabouts.
And apparently they did.
Six gangsters were nabbed in the Houston area, including reputed robbers and home invaders. An accused drug trafficker was apprehended in Mexico.
It is social networking at its finest," said Larry Karson, a retired Customs Service agent who is a criminal justice lecturer at the University of Houston -Downtown. "It is simply an extension from John Walsh's 'America's Most Wanted,' a continuation of it in the 21st century."
Among the highest profile fugitives to be captured is Raul Madrigal, affiliated with the Houstone Tango Blast, who is accused of leading a cocaine-trafficking organization.
He was arrested in Mexico in May and has not yet been sent back to the United States.
As Madrigal roamed Mexico, presumably out of the reach of American authorities, pictures were posted on a MySpace page that showed him on the beach, soaking in a giant bathtub of bubbles and hanging out in nightclubs.
U.S. authorities confiscated an array of his expensive toys, including such luxury cars as a Bentley, Maserati, Hummer and BMW.
Houston Police Capt. Dale Brown, in charge of the Gang Division, said there are 10,000 documented gang members in Houston and the surrounding counties, and more than 200 gangs.
"There is a gang presence in basically every part of our city and surrounding counties," he said. "There is no such thing as, gang members are only hanging out in the inner city. For years now they have spread out into the suburbs and the rural regions."
The public now has at their fingertips the wanted posters of Houston's most sought gangsters on the law-enforcement website, stophoustongangs.org. They can, and have, left real-time tips leading police or federal agents right to fugitives.
Authorities in turn post status reports to let tipsters know what happened, including whether an arrest has been made or more help is needed. As soon as one "Top Ten" fugitive is captured, another moves onto the list.
"When your picture is put up, and you are aware of it, it means you have to go underground," said Karson, of the University of Houston-Downtown. "Depending on the level of the criminal, it might be from someone moving out of the neighborhood or going on the road and living in campsites and hoping not to get spotted."
Since mid-April, authorities at HPD, the FBI, and other agencies behind the website have singled out one member of "Top Ten" for extreme online and billboard attention.
Clear Channel Outdoor has donated spots on several billboards.
Since the the Top 10 program was launched, visitors to the website, which includes a wealth of information on gangs, have soared, leaving 430 tips on gang activity in a recent 90-day period, authorities said.
Brown, the HPD captain, said people who previously have been hesitant to offer information on gang members due to fears of retaliation should find more comfort in the website's anonymity.
"The public, the citizenry have the information we need to solve crimes, to identify the bad guys, to help locate and arrest them," he said. "Somebody out there knows who these people are."
Five of the Houston area's Top 10 Most Wanted gangsters have already been busted under the new program that uses the Web and digital roadside billboards to seek out tipsters who know the fugitives' whereabouts.
The publicity blitz, funneled through stophoustongangs.org, appears to be offering precious few places to hide for the fugitives.
They have turned up on Houston area streets, in jail on other charges and in Mexico, where one fugitive was arrested in May in the northern violence-thrashed metropolis of Monterrey.
The results seem impressive, considering the most wanted fugitive list was launched in April.
Those who have been taken into custody are accused of everything from running large loads of drugs from Mexico to Houston to smacking someone in the face and stealing their glasses and money.
Time will tell how good the cases against them are, and if convicted, how much they'll be punished.
Tips can be submitted online anonymously, but it is a good bet that spurned girlfriends, wives, gangster rivals and others were only too happen at the chance to click and bust these guys.
The Web site features a Top 10, but calls on the public for help in taking in all gangsters. The site has garnered at least 1,136 "public leads," since it started and those have resulted in 280 arrests, according to a counter at the bottom of the page.
"This Web site gives people the ability, from the safety and comfort of their own homes, to do something about people they fear and are violent and could hurt someone," FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap said. "The success is a lot greater and quicker than we anticipated."
Dunlap said the Web site is proving especially effective at taking down gang members because some members of the public have been fearful of making reports more traditional ways, such as personally contacting police.
"Anyone could provide us that information. We have had sons, mothers and fathers turn people in to us," she said of all cases, not just the most-wanted fugitives.
She added that since the Web site started, the number of visits has steadily increased and the quality of the information included in tips has improved.
The public can also go online to see the status of their tip (denoted only by a code number) and what has happened, such as an arrest made or if it tip has been referred to an investigator.
Some of the charges may seem minor league, but these are likely just what cases could be made to get them off the streets - and more hefty matters remain under investigation. Here they are:
Johnny Lewis, of the 52 Hoova Crips, is wanted for aggravated robbery that occurred during a home invasion in January 2012. Lewis and another man were forced their way into a home and stole money and a cell phone before they fled.
Desmond Deshay Ford is accused of a January 2012 robbery in the 7000 block of Belfort in which he allegedly demanded the victim's money and eyeglasses. Authorities contend he knocked the victim in the head with something hard enough to require hospital treatment.
Samuel Rodriguez Hernandez, of the Southwest Cholos, is wanted for robbery at a bus stop in the 6000 block of Glenmont in Houston, in May 2010. Authorities said the victim was waiting for a bus when Hernandez asked him to use his cell phone. Hernandez supposedly grabbed the phone, then hit the victim in the face and ran away.
Nathaniel L "Nate" Wiggins, of the 59 Bounty Hunter Bloods, is accused of robbing someone at gunpoint in January 2012. Raul Sergio Madrigal, aligned with the Houstone Tango Blast, remains wanted for conspiracy to distribute to posses with intention to distribute marijuana and cocaine. Madrigal, is charged federally for his alleged role directing the distribution of large amounts of drugs in the Houston area from 2007 to 2009. Here is much more on Madrigal and what makes him stand out.
He was arrested in May in Monterrrey, Mexico, but appears to still be in the custody of Mexican authorities.
Nathaniel L "Nate" Wiggins, of the 59 Bounty Hunter Bloods, is accused of robbing someone at gunpoint in January 2012
Authorities say the first fugitive from Houston's new "Top 10 Most Wanted Gang Fugitives" list has been captured in Mexico.
Raul Sergio Madrigal, from stophoustongangs.org Raul Sergio Madrigal is considered to have been a key narco player here before fleeing south of the border, where he's believed to have been for a few years.
He may have drawn additional attention by photos of his life on the run that were posted on a myspace page:
Madrigal at the clubs in Mexico.
Madrigal at the beach in Mexico.
Madrigal soaking in a giant tub of bubble-bath.
Madrigal shooting the finger at whoever is looking at him.
Madrigal again shooting the finger at whoever is looking at him.
A movie-star looking woman wearing a skimpy police costume, complete with a hat with the letters FBI.
The next photo taken of Madrigal may be a mug shot, should he be handed over by Mexico to face charges here.
No, we don't publish myspace photos in this blog without getting permission from the proper owner of the photos. (And don't waste time looking for them as the page has since been made private.)
In gangster terms, Madrigal is especially interesting as he was affiliated with the massive Houstone Tango Blast gang, and had apparently purchased several high-end sports cars, sedans and other vehicles that have been confiscated by the feds and locked away in a government warehouse. (as shown above)
Sources say that Madrigal was arrested in Mexico as a result of an extradition request by the United States, but no one is yet sharing details such as when, exactly where and how Madrigal was captured. It is also unclear how smooth the path is to bringing him back to the United States. If he is a dual citizen, matters could be complicated or if he is already facing charges in Mexico.
I suspect we'll one day see him appear in federal court in Houston, a sight that would be welcomed by the federal agents that have long been pursuing him.
It may also be a chance to hear from Madrigal or his lawyer about the validity of charges against him.
He was first featured on the law-enforcement run Web site, stophoustongangs.org, which launched the Top 10 Most Wanted Gang Fugitives," two months ago. Part of that includes a weekly focus on a gangster who is the subject of a publicity blitz, including billboards and media coverage, to draw attention to one of the fugitives.
The idea is to get the public to use the Web site so share tips, anonymously if desired.
Madrigal had been on the run for at least two years before the campaign started. He didn't last two months once the Web site launched the Most Wanted Gangster program and only a few weeks after him himself was featured as the wanted gangster of the week.
Do the feds have the goods on Madrigal to put him away? Only time will tell.
Captured not long after Madrigal was second most wanted gangster, Johnny Lewis, who is charged with aggravated robbery during a home invasion.
It has been five months since the Pasadena Police Department launched its Gang Intelligence Unit, the division that collects gang-related data after its predecessor unit, Project Spotlight, was disbanded.
In a recent interview with the Pasadena Citizen, Pasadena Police Chief Michael Thaler said the change from a unit with several tasks to one that focuses solely on gang intelligence has been a success.
Project Spotlight was a unit merged with the old Gang Task Force and the Street Crimes Unit. While the old unit's tasks besides gang intelligence were serving warrants and special investigations, the three members of the Gang Intelligence Unit - which started operating on Nov. 28 - spend most of their time in front of the computer.
One of the reasons why Thaler decided to disband the old unit was that not enough focus was put on gang intelligence.
"We're adding anywhere from 20 to 30 additional gang members per week, is what I'm being told, based on information we receive from the gang unit, from interviews in the jail, from officers who fill out gang cards," Thaler said.
At this point, more than 600 gang members are documented in the police department's database. Thaler said since the new unit was launched the high water mark was about 2,000 documented gang members.
Gang unit members follow the Texas criminal code's guidelines for entering individuals into the gang database. For example, officers must determine if an individual is a self-professed gang member, if others say he is, if he associated with known gang members or if he uses street gang symbols, hand signals or tattoos.
Those for who no gang activity is reported for five years are taken out of the database, which explains the fluctuation in the number of documented gang members.
"We are very comfortable and confident that everybody that's in the database right now has been documented for good cause," Thaler said.
Thaler wouldn't speculate on how many gang members there are in Pasadena. Nor would he comment on which gangs are most prevalent in Pasadena for concern that the publicity could be used as a recruiting tool for those gangs.
Sgt. Steve Skripka, the unit's supervisor, said no gang is exclusive to Pasadena. "It would be incorrect for me to say gang A, B and C work in Pasadena. They are transient in nature."
According to the anti-gang website StopHoustonGangs.org, the Houston area is home to at least 30 street and prison gangs.
"The more famous gangs and the more prolific gangs, I would venture to guess or say that we've probably got representatives here in Pasadena and (that) we've already documented," Thaler said.
He also said that fewer than 10 gangs account for the majority of criminal gang activity in Pasadena.
The nature of gangs has changed from territorial to mostly money-driven criminal organizations, Thaler said.
"I don't want to compare them to the Mafia but that's really in effect what it is. It's an affiliation of individuals of like mind who want to engage in criminal behavior."
So how big of a problem are gangs in the city of Pasadena?
"We, like any metropolitan area, unfortunately are struggling with those individuals and criminal enterprises that are affiliated through gangs," Thaler said, "but it's not at the levels I've seen in other major metropolitan areas and we're not anywhere near the level of what it is in Houston."
It is hard to say how many crimes out of the total number of crimes are gang-related, simply because even if committed by a known gang member, a crime such as domestic violence cannot necessarily be classified as a gang crime.
However, Thaler's guess as to how many crimes are committed by gang members, "I would say probably at least half" of all crimes in Pasadena.
Pasadena residents can learn about Houston area gangs and submit anonymous tips on StopHoustonGangs.org.
Tips can also be submitted directly to the Gang Intelligence Unit at 713-475-7825.
Life on the run has got to be getting tougher for Juan Gonzalez, who authorities say is a Houston gang member and fugitive. His face is turning up everywhere, from the above web ad to the below billboard, and now on television.
He is the first fugitive featured on stophoustongangs.org billboards around the city, and is reportedly going to be the subject of a segment by Univision and ABC television Thursday evening. The full-court pressure comes as part of a campaign recently launched by several local law enforcement agencies.
Houston law agencies Wednesday upgraded a website that allows citizens to anonymously turn in gang members, adding a Top 10 gallery of the most wanted gang members.
The anti-gang website, called StopHoustonGangs.org, hit cyberspace in September 2010. Since then, 244 arrests have been made, based on 803 tips forwarded to law enforcement agencies via the site, according to statistics provided by the FBI. The most recent tip, an FBI spokesman said, came Wednesday, hours after photos of a fugitive gang member were posted on the Houston Chronicle website.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said one tip, sent in after a double shooting of two youths in Tidwell Park in May 2011, led to an investigation that netted 142 arrests and the seizure of guns, narcotics and cash.
"We received one single tip from an individual who told us about gang members being involved in stolen cars, selling drugs, having shootouts at the apartment complex in front of children," McClelland said. "That's how important one single tip from this website is, and will pay dividends and keep our community safe."
From 2010 to 2011, crime by confirmed gang members in Houston went up 6 percent, HPD said.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said 223 different gangs have been documented in the county.
"They commit violent offenses such as home invasions, robberies, kidnappings, murder, extortion. They traffic in drugs and human trafficking," Lykos said. "You know, the gangs brag that they own the night. I want you to look at this splendid website, because they are shining the light of day on these poisonous cockroaches."
FBI Special Agent Stephen Morris, who heads the Houston FBI office, said the anti-gang website has the potential to take community policing in the Houston area to a new level.
"It shows how you can bring three separate, distinct entities - law enforcement, private industry and, more importantly, the community - together to forge a synergy where the potential is enormous here," Morris said. "When you're talking about people walking around with laptops and cell phones that have more computing power than we had in our offices and our homes five years ago, this is an extremely powerful tool."
Lee Vela, vice president of public affairs at ClearChannel Outdoor, said his firm will advertise StopHoustonGangs.org information on 26 billboards around Houston. In addition, the company will feature a gang member of the week on two of its digital billboards.
"It's powerful," Vela said of the use of advertising to catch criminals. "Every time we do one for the FBI it works. In December we put one up on a Friday and he had turned himself in by Sunday."
The website is also supported by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who said his gang task force has documented 4,000 gang members, part of the 12,000 gang members estimated to operate in the county.
He said the unit arrested 109 gang members and seized $250,000 in cash last year.
HOUSTON -- The FBI, Houston Police Department, and the complete network of law enforcement agencies throughout Harris County announced enhancements to their anti-gang efforts Wednesday.
They hope the improvements will lead to even more cooperation from the public in rooting out gangs and gang violence.
On May 10, 2011, a 23-year-old and a 14-year-old were wounded by gunfire at Tidwell Park. After that shooting a northeast Houston resident sent one tip to the Stop Houston Gangs website, www.stophoustongangs.org. Police say that single tip eventually led to a total of 142 arrests.
To capitalize on the proven potential of the website, the Houston area Multi-Agency Gang Task Force (MAGTF), used Tidwell Park as the location for a news conference to announce several new features for the anti-gang campaign.
The site now features the Top Ten Most Wanted Gang Fugitives in the Houston area. Each week one of them will appear as the "Featured Fugitive" in a profile of his or her crimes. And Clear Channel Outdoor is offering 26 billboards across the city to advertise the website and the featured fugitives.
"You know the gangs brag that they own the night. I want you to look at that splendid website because they are shining the light of day on these poisonous cockroaches," said Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos.
"I take pride in recognizing the fact that my guys know how to catch them and the madam DA knows how to cook 'em and fry 'em," said Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. "And we will continue to do that all day long."
Police agencies have identified 223 gangs in the Houston area with more than 12,000 documented gang members.
For more information about criminal gang activity or to find out how to send an anonymous tip, visit www.stophoustongangs.org.
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The Houston Police Department, FBI and other agencies say they have had good success in their efforts to fight gangs in Houston.
Last May, two people were shot at Tidwell Park. One of them was 14 years old.
As it turned out, the shooting involved gangs and it happened about the same time a new website was launched, targeting gangs in Houston.
The website allows people to email anonymous tips to law enforcement. The information identified suspects and the gangs to which they belonged.
Here's some of the data developed so far: There are said to be 12,000 documented gang members in the Houston area, who belong to more than 200 gangs operating here. The website has generated a huge database of information.
Now it's evolving. There are already billboards about the website. Now they'll include an image of what's called a featured fugitive. And on the website will be the top 10 most wanted gang fugitives.
Behind the initiative are the FBI, US Marshals, HPD, Harris County Sheriff's Office, Harris County District Attorney's Office, and Clear Channel, which is providing the outdoor ads.
Stephen Morris, FBI special agent in charge, said, "I think the basic principle we're exploiting is the goodness of people who want their communities back, and this is the tool that's going to help us give them back their communities."
During a rare gathering of the heads of every branch of law enforcement in the Houston area, an announcement was made as to how police are redoubling their efforts and turning up the heat on some of the city's most wanted gang members.
The announcement was made at Tidwell Park in northeast Houston. That spot was specifically chosen because an anonymous tip from the area helped police eventually arrest 140 gang members on various crimes.
"We will respond with the thunder of God that you've seen brought to this community," Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said.
The anonymous tip that helped lead to that response came through a website named StopHoustonGangs.org.
"One person was fed up with crime and these criminal gangs," Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said.
FBI officials report since this website was launched in September 2010 it has received 803 anonymous tips which led to 244 arrests.
Last February, Local 2 Investigates reported that there are approximately 12,000 documented gang members in the area and how gang crime jumped six percent last year in the city.
"All that pays, robbing, killing, it's all the same you know, kicking down doors," an admitted gang member told Local 2 during an interview last February.
This is why the website is adding new features in the hunt for wanted gang members. Law enforcement has created a top 10 most wanted list specifically devoted to gang members.
"The bad guys will not, will not, will never win," said Javier Pena, special agent-in-charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston Field Office.
Digital and poster billboards have also been donated by Clear Channel Outdoor to help feature the website and to feature a new most wanted gang member every week.
These added initiatives are designed to spur anonymous tips from the public about gang activity in neighborhoods.
"You hear people talk about it all the time, information is power," said Stephen Morris, special agent-in-charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Houston Office. "Often times it proves to be that missing link in a case that has puzzled agencies for years at a time."
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477).
According to the Houston Police Department, there have been more than 25,000 gang-related crimes committed in the city over the last five years. Local 2 Investigates analyzed HPD's database of gang-related crimes and found no boundaries as to what gang members are willing to do to make money.
"Whatever pays, whatever pays," said an admitted gang member who spoke to Local 2 Investigates. "Robbing, killing, it's all the same, you know, kicking down doors."
A sealed four-count indictment charging seven members or associates of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Street Gang with racketeering and the commission of three violent acts - three murders - in aid of racketeering has been unsealed following the arrest of the men charged. The indictments were announced by United States Attorney José Angel Moreno and FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen L. Morris.
The indictment, returned by a Houston grand jury on July 27, 2011, alleges Hector Ovidio Molina Fuentes, aka Hector Ovidio Madrid and Negro, 33; Jose Gabriel Garcia Calderon, aka Lunatico, 19; Ernesto Manuel Mejia, aka Sleepy, 18; Samuel DeJesus Argueta, aka Chucky, 21; Ronald Alexander Gomez, aka Topolliyo and Keeper, 19; Jaime Eduardo Lopez Torres, aka Pinguino, 29; and Carlos Contreras, aka Pupusa, 21, were members and associates of MS-13, a criminal organization in Houston that functioned as a unit engaged in murder, attempted murder, drug trafficking, robbery, extortion and conspiracy to further the objectives of the gang.
Those objectives included preserving, protecting, promoting and enhancing the power, territory and reputation of the gang - the enterprise - through the use of intimidation, violence, threats of violence, assaults and murder and keeping victims and community members in fear of the gang as well as providing financial support and information to MS-13 members including those incarcerated in the United States and elsewhere. The indictment was unsealed today.
Calderon, Gomez, Argueta and Mejia were arrested on June 28, 2011, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith on July 30, 2011, and have been ordered to remain in custody without bond pending trial. Torres appeared on Aug. 11, 2011, after his arrest on unrelated charges in Arkansas and will be detained pending trial. Contreras was arrested July 29, 2011. After a hearing before a U.S. Magistrate Judge, Contreras has also been ordered held without bond pending trial. Fuentes, who is currently in custody on unrelated charges in Panama, is pending extradition to the United States.
"Gang activities reach out from far beyond the neighborhoods in which they are ongoing and into the communities in which we live," said Moreno. "But the long arm of the law has now reached far beyond the borders of our district to bring these defendants to justice. These charges represent the continuing cooperative law enforcement efforts in this district to combat violent gang activity."
According to the indictment, the men allegedly committed violent crimes in furtherance of the enterprise for the purpose of gaining entry into the gang or maintaining or advancing their position within the gang. Among those crimes were the murders of Saul Garduno, 15, Jonathan Hernandez, 24, and Anayanci Roche, 17, on March 14, May 5, and June 1, 2011, respectively.
"Our investigation into this violent gang is not over. We will continue to pursue MS-13 and any other gang members who seek to poison our streets with drugs and violence, " said Morris. "The public is an important partner in this fight. We ask you to come forward with any information about this gang or other violent gangs in our communities. "
The MS-13 gang had its origins in the 1980s in the United States and is a national and international criminal organization whose members conduct gang activities in the United States and Central America. According to the indictment, the word "Mara" is the term used in El Salvador for gang, while the phrase "Salvatrucha" is a combination of the words "Salva" - an abbreviation for Salvadoran - and "trucha," which is a slang term for the warning "fear us," "look out" or "heads up." Male gang members are required to complete an initiation process, often referred to as "jumped in" where the new member is beaten by other members until the count of 13. Female gang members are initiated by either being "jumped in" or submitting to sexual activity with gang members. MS-13 gang members often display their membership through tattoos reading "MS" or "MS-13" in gothic lettering and/or by wearing the gang's colors - blue and white - or clothing bearing the number "13" or numbers when added together total 13. MS-13 members pay dues which are used for the benefit of and provided to MS-13 members who are imprisoned in the United States, El Salvador and Panama as well as to buy firearms to be used to conduct the enterprise's illegal activities.
The enterprise also has a hierarchy organized into "cliques," or smaller groups operating in a specific city or region which hold regular meetings to discuss gang rules, collect dues and discuss gang business including illegal activity. The leaders of individual MS-13 cliques are typically called "shot callers," "Jefe de Clica" (clique boss) or "Palabrero" (one who has the word). Above the shot caller are the MS-13 leaders, often referred to as "corredores de programa" (program leaders). Above them are the "palabreros de programa" (program shot callers) and above this group are the "principle shot callers." Finally, the "cabecillas nacionales" or national heads convey their orders to subordinates by the use of telephones even while incarcerated. According to the indictment, the defendants were members of a Houston area clique in which Fuentes and Calderon were shot callers and Mejia, Argueta, Gomez, Torres and Contreras were gang members.
These charges are the result of an investigation conducted by the FBI-led Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, which includes the Harris County Sheriff's Office, Houston Police Department, Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In addition, this investigation was worked in close coordination with the Houston Police Department's Homicide Division and their newly established gang squad.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tim S. Braley and Mark Donnelly are prosecuting the case.
To report potential gang activity in the area, please visit stophoustongangs.org. The newly established website, created by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, was designed to inform and educate the public about gangs and also allows anyone to report gang crimes anonymously.
HOUSTON -- The weeks before students head back to school can be filled with anxiety and uncertainty, but there's one serious problem that most families don't have on their radar, and that's gangs.
The Houston Police Department estimates there are more than 17,000 gang members affiliated with 200 documented gangs in Houston.
However, the threat is not limited to the city. The federal government's National Gang Center noted in 2009 that 55 percent of gang members were in big cities. More than 23 percent were in the suburbs and 18 percent were in small cities.
Those who work to fight the gang trend said the numbers are high because of ongoing recruitment. Patricia Harrington of the Mayor's Anti-Gang Office said gang recruitment is not specific to just one school district and often tough kids aren't always the ones targeted. Sometimes it's teens and preteen who get bullied.
"A lot of times gangs will say, 'We can be a protector of you'," said Harrington. "I would say the most vulnerable age are middle school ages, grades sixth through eighth."
Gang life can be attractive to some teens looking for a way to be a part of something and to stand out.
"They're looking for leadership, that guidance, and a sense of belonging," said Bradford Roland of the HPD Gang Division.
HPD sends officers to high-risk Houston Independent School Districts campuses to teach middle school students about gang resistance. The program is called G.R.E.A.T., which stands for Gang Resistance Education and Training.
"We see these kids doing well and then all of the sudden we see a drop in their grades and a change in their behavior," said Roland.
KPRC Local 2 got to ride along with Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Sgt. Julio Banda, who showed how gangs are a threat to vulnerable teens after school as well.
"A lot of times they go to parks to play basketball, and, believe it or not, the parks are one of the major recruiting areas for gangs," said Banda.
Gang life becomes a job as members are expected to earn for their crews. A lot of that responsibility falls on new, young, naive members who are suddenly caught up in something that's rarely as glamorous as what they see on television.
The Crosby Independent School District wants to keep gangs out of its schools. That is the reason two law enforcement officers assigned to the district have been participating in weeklong training intended to help repel the emergence of gangs.
Harris County Precinct 3 deputy constables Richard Miranda and Michael Cross during the week of June 27 have been attending the annual Texas Gang Investigators Association Training Conference in Irving. The trainers are recognized in the criminal justice field as experts in the illegal enterprises of street gangs and prison gangs.
The seminar covers gang basics and delves into the methods of specific gangs. The distinctive clothing colors, tattoos, written signs and hand gestures are covered to enhance recognition. Much of the training is more extensive, consistent with the evolving pervasiveness and looming threats of the ubiquitous criminal organizations.
"Gangs are most definitely a serious problem throughout Harris County, Texas, and the United States," Precinct 3 Chief Deputy Constable David Franklin said. "When you talk gangs, you have all the way from little high school gangs and 'wannabes' all the way to the real thing, Aryan Brotherhood and that kind of stuff.
"This training gets you together with other people - in this situation it's the school - and learn what to look for and to recognize, try to stay on top of it. Visibility is 90 percent of law enforcement."
Superintendent Dr. Keith Moore applauds the preventive nature of the conference, the information from which ideally will enable officers and staff to nip any trouble in the bud.
"My overall philosophy on them going to that conference is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Moore said. "Not to say that we are immune to those kind of issues in Crosby, but we have safe schools and so forth; my two daughters go to school here. I feel very comfortable with that, but we also don't need to be blind to the fact that those influences are around us."
The superintendent recognizes the reason that organizers annually conduct the training.
"If you take the approach that you've been to that training once, four or five years ago, and you feel like you don't need to refresh yourself, I think that you are mistaken," Moore said. "You better stay current or it becomes harder and harder to identify and then to handle."
Only association members, to include judges, prosecutors, and officers in law enforcement, corrections and probation, are permitted to attend the training.
The Texas Attorney General's Office, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force in co-sponsoring the training.
The general public may obtain online information about gangs and about law enforcement efforts to suppress them. The Stop Houston Gangs Task Force, of which the Harris County Sheriff's Department is a member, has a Web site: www.stophoustongangs.org.
Tipsters alert HPD with photos, video, email on suspicious activities
The anonymous tip bounced into a police supervisor's BlackBerry just before dinner on a recent Saturday night: Gangsters wearing matching muscle shirts were peddling crack from the parking lot of a convenience store where they would duck inside to hide from the law.
A few days later, more than a dozen undercover officers fanned out in the notoriously tough slice of northwest Houston.
The store in question was across the street from an apartment complex where Houston police officer Timothy Abernethy was shot to death in 2008.
The stealthy tip came as the result of the website stophoustongangs.org, which allows the public to privately share tips on crimes by gangs, from drug sales and graffiti to assaults and initiations.
The site drew nearly 60,000 visits in its first seven months, according to Houston police, and caught the attention of other cities that are considering copying it. Nearly 300 tips were shared by the public, resulting in upward of 30 felony and misdemeanor arrests, authorities say.
Anonymity important Photos and videos of cars, homes and suspects have been sent to the site as apparent neighbors, classmates and ex-girlfriends turned to cyberspace for the modern equivalent of dropping a dime on someone, said Lt. Craig Williams of HPD's Gang Division.
"A lot of people have information we are not privy to," Williams said. "They can do it anonymously. That is a key point. A lot of times people want to tell but are afraid."
The website is not for emergencies, but tips are routed directly to a supervisor drawn from about a dozen law enforcement agencies, including HPD, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The site also offers information for the public on local gangs, including photos, tattoos and hand signs.
Some of the tips have tagged the city's most notorious gangs, others small-time rings unknown to police.
The Houston Chronicle was allowed to review a sampling of 50 tips, all redacted by authorities to avoid sharing information that might help gangsters figure out tipsters' identities.
Many clues were about graffiti marking turf on Houston's streets and parks as well as the activities of petty drug dealers and thieves.
There were also more chilling tips about a gang initiation ritual that required a girl be raped, though no arrests have been made so far, and drunken men terrorizing a neighborhood by firing guns into the air while shouting the name of their gang. It is not clear from the records whether anything came of it.
Thugs also monitor site Some people, presumably gang members, also monitor the site, in some cases taunting police: "Ya'll ain't stopping nothing," reads one message.
Brian Ritchie, supervisor of the FBI's multi-agency gang task force in Houston, said a recent nationwide assessment found gang members commit 60 percent to 80 percent of crimes in some communities.
"Gangs are a reality in every major city and are growing in membership across the country," he said. "In the Houston area, there are more than 10,000 documented gang members belonging to more than 200 different documented gangs."
The clues submitted so far leave no doubt that people - especially those living near gang activity - want to help.
"One of the males was wearing a gray hoodie, shorts, and a ski mask," states part of a tip that later resulted in arrests. "He walked out with his hand in his jacket, pretending like he had a gun but then sat down on the bench and pulled his hand out of his jacket empty-handed."
Another tipster had a sense of urgency after a police raid. As soon as the police left, the tipster writes, the gang got together to (unsuccessfully) see who reported them so they could retaliate. "Told you guys to hit them on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night," the tip continues. "They have and do drugs, smoke marijuana, drink all night. Please help."
Can check results A unique aspect of the website is that tipsters can check what happens as a result of their shared clues.
In some cases, officers have posted notes asking tipsters for more specifics, such as license plates, names or apartment numbers.
On the afternoon undercover police descended on northwest Houston in response to the crack-dealing tip, within minutes the police radio crackled with the voice of Lt. Joe Inocencio: "Looks like we have some players on the side of the store."
For $20 a pop, officers quickly scored a few rocks of crack, enough for charges that could lead to months in jail and garner more information about bigger dealers.
As later noted on the website, officers arrested four people in the area on drug charges. A 17-year-old carrying a middle-school identification card and a 65-year-old man were among them.
Within days of being kidnapped at gunpoint and held hostage in an east Houston trailer park, Israel Ramirez overheard one of his captors making plans in the next room.
"I'm not going to kill them with a gun," the kidnapper reportedly said in Spanish. "I'll stab them, cut them up."
The abductors told Ramirez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, that he needed $2,000 by 5 p.m. or they would kill him. Ramirez called a friend to raise money: "The police arrested me last night," he said. "They are asking for $2,000 for me to be released."
The friend asked which police station he was in, but before he could answer, one of the abductors took the phone away.
"Oh you are trying to be a smart one," the man said. "Do you know who we are?"
That April 7 phone call - detailed in a criminal complaint - led members of the FBI's Houston Division Violent Crime Task Force to the trailer, where they arrested two Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members after a brief but tense standoff.
Authorities rescued Ramirez and two other illegal immigrants - including a 15-year-old - who reported being kidnapped from another stash house, beaten and held at gunpoint in the trailer while their captors extorted money from their loved ones.
The case highlights what some law enforcement officials in Texas have identified as an alarming trend - the "hijacking" of groups of illegal immigrants by members of MS-13, a notorious street gang with ties in Central and South America.
"Intelligence indicates that they (MS-13) are continually participating in 'coyote rips' in which they commandeer control of a group of human smuggling victims," according to the 2010 Texas Gang Threat Assessment by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Rival smuggling organizations and street gangs have been involved in stealing loads of illegal immigrants for years, authorities said, as smuggling fees have skyrocketed amid the U.S. border crackdown.
Patrick McElwain, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Houston, said MS-13's involvement in human smuggling and human trafficking has been increasing locally and nationally.
Houston is home to the largest concentration of MS-13 members in Texas, though the numbers are relatively small in comparison to some other gangs, like the Mexican Mafia.
'Money to be made'
The gang's motivation for executing "coyote rips" - the kidnapping of loads of illegal immigrants - is clear-cut, McElwain said.
"There is money to be made for the organization," he said.
Brian Ritchie, who leads the violent crimes and gangs task force for the FBI's Houston division, said the smuggling rip-offs are "crimes of opportunity" for gang members and are vastly under-reported.
"Probably 90 percent of the cases go unreported," he said. "The only ones that are reported are when shots are fired.
"It's kind of like the home invasion of a drug dealer who may lose kilos of cocaine or marijuana or cash derived from drug sales," he said. "They're not going to report it. Really, when you think about it, it's the perfect crime."
But the rip-off that landed three illegal immigrants in the east Houston trailer park did not go as planned.
A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Houston details an April 7 conversation between one of the kidnapped illegal immigrants, a woman he called for help paying his ransom and one of his captors.
After Ramirez pleaded for money, the captor took the phone and told the woman he was looking for a smuggler named "Chino" and found Ramirez and a handful of other illegal immigrants instead.
"Now someone has to pay," the kidnapper told her.
He hung up and someone called back with information on a Western Union account in Houston. Instead of paying out, the woman called police.
The cellphone records led members of the violent crime task force to surround a trailer at 14017 Longview on April 8.
Jose Isidro Morales, 37, and Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 22, who both sported MS-13 tattoos on their torsos, surrendered after Rodriguez briefly pointed a Ruger 9?mm semiautomatic pistol in the direction of law enforcement, according to federal agents. Agents also confiscated a Bowie knife, a .38-caliber revolver and a semiautomatic rifle.
In the two days Ramirez was held hostage in the trailer, he told investigators, he saw six or seven other suspects come and go.
Another victim, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, told investigators the kidnappers tied his hands behind his head and kicked him in the ribs and throat. He saw them take cocaine and smoke marijuana, he said.
"The guy with the tattoos said he will kill me if I don't pay the money," he told investigators.
MS-13 AT A GLANCE
MS-13 - or Mara Salvatrucha - is an international street gang with roots in El Salvador and much of Central and South America. MS-13 has forged alliances with Mexican drug cartels including the notorious Los Zetas, according to the 2010 Texas Gang Threat Assessment. The gang's numbers are largest in southwest Houston, where gang members have extorted illegal immigrants and small businesses owners, charging a cuota - a kind of informal tax - in order to avoid being harassed or assaulted. The gang has been implicated in a string of local murders, robberies and extortion attempts.
Recent cases include:
Feb. 10: Two MS-13 gang members who drove from Houston to South Carolina to carry out a murder-for-hire for a Honduran client are found guilty by a jury in South Carolina. They are awaiting sentencing.
April 2009: Gang member Albin Zelaya-Zelaya is sentenced to life in prison for burglarizing a southwest Houston apartment after jurors learned he also is wanted for a double-decapitation murder in Honduras. Police said Zelaya-Zelaya's MS-13 clique may be responsible for a string of local crimes, including at least four kidnapping cases that targeted illegal immigrants or their smugglers.
January 2009: Gang members are caught on surveillance video at a Houston hair salon threatening employees with guns and a machete. One employee, a young woman, was sexually assaulted. Seven gang members were arrested and sentenced on state charges in connection with the case. The ringleader in the case is serving 70 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
One week after prosecutors banned 47 gang members from setting foot in the chronically troubled Haverstock Hills apartment complex, the first known gang member has been caught violating the order.
Devin Lamont Banks, 30, was apprehended Friday in the 57-acre "safety zone" set up around the northwest Houston apartment complex long known for gangs, drugs and violence. He pleaded guilty Monday in exchange for a 300-day jail sentence.
"I guess they were serious when they told you they didn't want you to come back," County Court-at-law Judge Paula Goodhart said after hearing the plea.
"Yes, ma'am, they were serious," Banks said.
The injunction classifies named gang members as "public nuisances" who can be penalized by a year behind bars if caught violating the order.
Banks was one of four men who appeared in court Feb. 7, in gang regalia, and agreed to the order prohibiting them from trespassing at the complex in the northeast corner of Aldine Bender and the Eastex freeway.
"I'm confident a judge or a jury would have given him the full year if it went to trial," said Assistant Harris County District Attorney Joni Vollman.
Banks is expected to serve five months of the sentence. His attorney, Tonya Rolland, said Banks weighed his options and was comfortable with his decision to admit guilt. Rolland declined to discuss why Banks violated the order.
Hugo Gallardo is paralyzed, shot four times by a suspected Houston gang member on the day he was supposed to be celebrating his brother's 19th birthday.
His brother Uvaldo was shot dead - one of more than 100 people killed in gang attacks in Houston since 2007, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of Houston police data.
Every week, on average, suspected gang members also rob four people and break into four homes or businesses, records show. Most of the crimes, according to police, are not gang-on-gang, but random bad luck - people in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
"Unfortunately it's the innocent general public impacted by gang crimes," said Capt. Dale Brown, commander of the Houston Police Department Gang Division.
Not surprisingly, the most common haunts of local gangs are schools, strip malls and apartment complexes. Of the 10 addresses with the most criminal activity, four were middle or high schools, according to the Chronicle's analysis.
The review shows Cesar E. Chavez High School, on Howard in southeast Houston, had 40 gang-related criminal incidents over the three-year period, more than any other school in the city. Other heavily gang-affected schools include Furr Senior High School, Madison High School and Louie Welch Middle School.
The most frequently reported incidents at schools involved public fighting; one 17-year-old girl broke her thumb, wrist, face and hands after being kicked and punched by another student. Other reports included drug use, graffiti on school walls, weapon possession and class disruptions. Some reports say students were "smoking the blunt and passing it back and forth," displaying gang colors, or calling on a rival gang to come to a fight during a class.
Houston Independent School District Police Chief Jimmy Dotson said the volume of incidents is likely the result of school staff aggressively reporting the problems.
"The number could be elevated due to the population (enrolled) or the administration practices zero tolerance when it comes to student violations of the law and Code of Student Conduct," Dotson said in an e-mail.
The Chronicle analysis found more than 11,000 criminal activities were identified by Houston police as gang-related from 2007 to September 2010.
More than 1,400 people were assaulted, and more than 2,000 families and businesses were ripped off by thugs in the city.
The cost in property loss: $29 million, according to the data.
For 19-year-old Uvaldo Gallardo, the price was his life.
Two brothers shot According to police, Uvaldo and Hugo Gallardo, 25, were shot by a suspected gang member, Leandro Lozano-Jiminez, who has since disappeared. The brothers got involved in an argument with Lozano when they went to invite their neighbors to Uvaldo's birthday party. Lozano pulled a .40-caliber handgun and shot them both.
Uvaldo died instantly. Hugo suffered a severe spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed.
"We didn't tell him about his brother's death until a week later. My husband has gone through depression really hard," said Jacqueline Morales, Hugo's wife.
Overall, gang-related criminal activity decreased by 13 percent in 2010. The decrease reflects crime trends in general across Houston. But law enforcement operations also have accelerated.
Just last week, a Houston judge issued a civil injunction banning 47 gang members from the crime-infested Haverstock Hills Apartments in northeast Harris County, a place long notorious for drug dealing, robberies and burglaries. In a statement about the injunction, Harris County District Attorney Pay Lykos said, "This is a notice to the Bloods and the Crips and all the other gangs that we are going after them."
225 gangs identified A task force of local and federal law enforcement authorities also has created a website, stophoustongangs.org, to educate the public and solicit tips. More than 20 men are listed as "Houston's most wanted gang members."
A report by the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area last year noted: "Gangs now have a younger, more violent membership. . Gang recruitment is at an all-time high." It added that the Texas Department of Public Safety has warned parents that Mexican drug cartels and transnational gangs are recruiting in Texas schools.
The same report noted there are some 225 documented gangs in Houston.
By far, the Chronicle analysis shows, most gang crimes involve drugs.
"Gangs have gradually taken over the street-level retail of drug businesses and increasingly moved into wholesale drug dealings," said HPD's Brown.
The Chronicle analysis showed more than 3,300 arrests for drug possessions or deliveries worth more than $910,000.
Gang experts say the drug business is fueled in part by Houston's proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, the region's stature as a hub for international drug trafficking and the ever-present dealings of Mexican cartels and cartel cells.
"You will see overlaps between embedded gang members here and the drug businesses that are thriving as a result of the location close to Mexico," said Tomson Nguyen, a professor of criminology at the University of Houston, who was a gang member in his teenage years.
Most of the gang crimes were concentrated in southwest Houston on Hillcroft between Bellaire and Gulfton, which accounts for 194 incidents over the three-year span.
Another 133 incidents occurred in the area north of Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, between McGowen and Elgin. That same area was the site of a shooting spree between two street gangs in July 2009 during a rap music festival on the TSU campus. Eight people were wounded, including a teenage girl in the crowd who was shot in the leg.
Albert Mondane, who claimed to be with a street criminal gang called Mash Mode, pulled the gun and started shooting at members of the other gang. Mondane pleaded guilty to engaging in organized crime and deadly conduct and was sentenced to two years of community supervision.
Police say gang crime concentrations correspond to historical high crime rates in both those areas.
800 given counseling Huyen Le was robbed in front of her mother's house near Wilcrest, one of the crime hot spots in southwest Houston. As she grabbed for something in her truck, she heard someone talking to her. When she looked up, a gun was pointed at her and a man demanded her purse. Two suspected gang members were arrested.
Here, as well as across the country, anti-gang groups continue to focus on intervention efforts. In Houston, the Mayor's Anti-Gang Office served about 800 youths involved with gangs last year by providing counseling programs.
"They need to know how to phase out hanging out with gangs, how to make transitions, going back to schools, where to get drug treatment," said Patricia Harrington, the director of the office. "A lot of it is to give the kids the support they need so they understand they don't have to take that route."
Accessing relevant, up-to-date intelligence about gang members and their criminal activities is a common problem for partnering jurisdictions that want this information. One place that lacked unified and sharable data was Houston, which has at least 10,000 documented gang members in the city limits and the suburbs.
In a project to improve information sharing between public safety agencies, a task force of state, local and federal partners devised StopHoustonGangs.org - a public-facing site to educate Houston area residents and a back-end portal for law enforcement to share information. Launched in September 2010, the website is a one-stop destination for gang-related information. Officials envision the site will become an outlet where law enforcement can educate the community about gangs and residents can submit anonymous tips about gang activity.
"We were trying to figure out a vehicle in which we could inform the public about gang crimes and heighten awareness of gang activities occurring within the city and surrounding areas," said Lt. Craig Williams of the Houston Police Department.
The website is a project of the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, an FBI-led partnership that encompasses 14 other agencies, including: the Houston Police Department; Texas Department of Criminal Justice; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The task force seeks to identify members and leaders of violent street gangs and target them for prosecution.
Enlisting the Community
But some people believe that targeting and tracking gang members and crime isn't solely the responsibility of public safety agencies. Residents usually have a better sense of when abnormal activity is occurring in their neighborhoods than police do, so StopHoustonGangs.org is more than just an informational website. It's a community policing initiative.
The website provides information residents should look for - like gang signs, hand symbols, clothing, colors, tattoos and graffiti - and a Web-based form for them to anonymously send gang-related tips to the task force.
"The law enforcement component that we were really excited about was creating a mechanism in which we can solicit information on gang activity from the public," Williams said. "This vehicle allows us to get it from anyone who knows how to turn a computer on."
Citizens who have information about criminal gang activity happening anywhere in the region can submit their clues and tips. "And we will assign someone to investigate it," Williams said.
The tip form doesn't capture the reporters' IP address or require them to provide contact information. However, they can include their name, phone number or e-mail address if they're OK with a law enforcement officer contacting them to follow up. Williams said after just more than a month of the site being live, about half of the tips submitted included the reporter's contact information.
As of late October, the website received 30,000 hits, and community members submitted more than 80 tips through it, according to Williams. Even more impressive: Those tips led to 10 arrests.
Also notable about this community policing initiative is that the public is watching how the Houston Police Department and other partner agencies are responding to the tips. Williams said one of the first tips received via the website was that gang activity was occurring on Friday nights in a certain location. "We went out on Saturday night and there was no activity," he said. "And the next week he e-mailed back and said, 'I told you guys to come on a Friday night. You guys came on a Saturday night; there's nothing happening on Saturday nights.'"
The police officers went to the location the following Friday night and made multiple arrests.
"The people submitting the information probably live in the area or are close to the activity, so they know what's going on," Williams said. "They know if we're doing anything." He said this is why the task force responds to all tips that warrant further investigation.
Besides sharing gang-related data with law enforcement officials, the website also facilitates information sharing between the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force members. A login function allows them to securely access the back-end portion and view facts related to gang investigations. Brian Ritchie, the FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the task force, said before the website, information was exchanged through e-mails and in-person meetings. Although that communication hasn't stopped, the site has become a central digital archive.
"In this day and age, the Internet is a part of everyone's daily life," Ritchie said, "and this just makes it a lot quicker and more effective to make sure everyone involved in these types of investigations has the information, so that we can try to do our job more effectively."
The agencies alternate monitoring the site in one-month increments, Williams said, so everyone gets to see the submitted tips, however, task force - supervisors can always view them and agencies can follow up if a submitted tip aligns with their investigation.
The 15 agencies represented in the task force span all levels of government, as well as different law enforcement sectors such as homeland security, drug enforcement, and immigration and customs enforcement. "We all need each other to fight the problem. We really do; none of us can do it by ourselves," Williams said. "Obviously the [Houston Police Department] has more 'boots on the ground' than any of the other agencies. So a lot of the agencies will look to us for manpower while we look to them for the technological issues where we can do wiretaps on different organizations or surveillance."
The idea for StopHoustonGangs.org originated during the task force's meetings, when members were searching for a way to provide the public with gang-related information. Williams said initially the agencies were going to start a 1-800 number, but realized it wouldn't be feasible due to the cost and manpower required.
"There was not one thing that really led to the start of the website," Ritchie said. "It was over many meetings and several months that we came up with the idea to solicit information from the public to try to make Houston a safer place."
The website's educational component seeks to build community awareness by showing residents what to look for, and contains material on who's vulnerable to being in a gang and how to get out of one.
The site wasn't modeled after other projects. Williams said the task force took into consideration comments from the members, police personnel and civilians. An FBI contractor with experience building law enforcement-related websites designed StopHoustonGangs.org. And it may be setting the standard for similar sites. As of press time, the webmaster had received eight invitations from other public safety agencies to build similar projects for them, according to Williams.
"We feel very fortunate that it's caught on," Ritchie said. "We've had a lot of success since the website's been up, and we think other cities will as well."
HOUSTON - Houston Police are trying to keep the Bayou City from becoming a stomping ground for gangs and drug cartels from Mexico.
The brutal and bloody scenes from across the border make headlines nearly every day. The fear for local authorities is that the drug trafficking and violent crime will soon spill into Houston streets. That's why a multi-agency gang task force was formed.
Congressman Mike McCaul met with Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and HPD officers to discuss how the federal government can continue to help fund the efforts to stop gang violence and prevent the Mexican drug cartels from bringing their level of crime to Houston.
McCaul, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, compared the cartels to Al Qaeda and said they should be dealt with as terrorists.
Garcia and McCaul called the drug cartels "narco-terrorists."
Garcia said he would like to have the hiring freeze lifted from his department in order to get more "boots on the ground."
HPD has identified more than 200 gangs in the Houston area.
HOUSTON - Gang problems are not unusual in Houston. But you may be surprised to find that if there is a gang in Texas, they have a presence in the Bayou City. In fact, according to the National Gang Threat Assessment Group, Houston has more gang members than any other city in the Lone Star State.
The number of different documented gangs in our city is 225. Their total members are estimated to be around 10,000, but the reality is the true numbers are difficult to determine.
Lt. Craig Williams is on the front lines of the battle. He says gangs have changed the way they do business.
"They are more organized than people want to give them credit for. They are a little smarter. They are very chameleon like," he says. "Some gangs ... there is no more blood in, blood out. They will let people come in and join the gang and if you choose not to be a gang member anymore for whatever reason you could probably get out."
Lt. Williams says gang activity is in literally every part of our area.
"They all work together for one thing. They can be any race. They can operate in any area, uptown it doesn't matter if you're in the suburbs or if you're in the inner city."
With money being the prime motivator, gangs go where the money is.
"The suburban areas are more affluent. That's where the money is. I'm not saying that there's not money in the city of Houston but people tend to be less on guard in the suburbs. You go out in the suburbs and you let your guard down you say well I made it. I'm living the American dream. I don't have to worry about the crime in the city of Houston but you do because it's there."
HPD has teamed up with a number of law enforcement agencies for an anti-gang task force. They created the website stophoustongangs.org. It is a website where you can learn about gang tattoos, clothing, how they work and where.
"Since the inception on Sept. 23 of this year we've had close to 28,000 hits on the website and generated numerous clues," Williams says.
HPD says 8 to 10 arrests have already come from the information gathered from that website.
Other law enforcement agencies have taken note. At least 6 have already contacted HPD for help in setting up their own website.
As reported last week by the Chronicle's Dane Schiller, the Houston area is home to far more gang members than anywhere else in Texas. That, in itself, is not so surprising: All big cities have gangs, and the greater Houston area, with roughly 6 million people, is no exception.
But what is of great current concern is that these gangs' activities have become "alarming even to law enforcement," according to a report by the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a coalition of law enforcement agencies in Harris and surrounding counties, which notes that gang recruitment, with a younger, more violent membership, is at a record high.
Currently, according to the National Gang Threat Assessment, there are 225 gangs in the region, and their influence is spreading into the suburbs and surrounding areas as they become more international, interacting with enormous, well-financed Mexican cartels. The largest of these is the Houstones, with more than 2,230 members, as tallied by police. (That's about 40 percent of the number of Houston Police Department officers, currently about 5,500.)
Many Houstonians, especially those who see little, if any, evidence of gang activity in their daily lives, choose to ignore the issue or at least assign it a low priority. And even for those who do want to be involved, it is a complex problem, one with many causes and no easy answers.
Violent gangs and drug traffickers in the Houston area are growing stronger and more international, spreading into the suburbs as they bulk up on newfound connections with Mexico's lucrative and brazen organized crime syndicates.
The region is home to far more gang members than anywhere in Texas, according to the National Gang Threat Assessment.
As of this year, there were 225 documented gangs roaming the area, according to intelligence reports, the biggest being the "Houstones," with at least 2,233 members that have been confirmed by police.
Their soldiers alone equate to about 43 percent of the number of Houston police officers.
"Due to their sheer numbers, they (gangs) have a propensity to create a large number and wide variety of criminal acts," according to a report reviewed by the Houston Chronicle and compiled by the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a coalition of law-enforcement agencies that stretches from here to the coastal counties, an area that includes 6 million people
HOUSTON -- A former Houstone gang member said he managed to escape the crime-filled lifestyle, but it wasn't easy.
When Houston law enforcement leaders gathered Thursday morning to announce a new initiative to fight gang crime they said there are some 10,000 gang members living in the area. Not too long ago, one of them was a man named Ryan who said he lived the gang life for more than 13 years
The fight against Houston-area gang members moved into cyberspace Thursday, as 15 law enforcement agencies fired up a website to allow citizens to provide anonymous information on gang members.
StopHoustonGangs.Org is intended to generate tips on gang crimes and activity, as well as give local parents and their children useful information about the hazards of gang life and tips for identifying members, prosecutors and police said.
"You know, the gangs say they own the night. Well, this website shines the light of day on those thugs," said Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos. "Because, if we're going to make Texas and Harris County safer, it's not just law enforcement, it's the entire community that must be involved. And it's parents and educators who can learn from this website."
Houston's gang activity is the subject of a new website. The FBI is teaming up with local law enforcement on the initiative to increase community awareness through education regarding the threat of criminal gang activity. Pat Hernandez has more.
The website Stop Houston Gangs.org was created to keep the community informed about gangs in the area. It will allow residents to report anonymous tips about criminal gang activity.
"You know, the gangs say that they own the night, well this website shines the light of day on those thugs."
That's Harris County DA Pat Lykos. She stays combining law enforcement with residents will help make a dent in gang activity here.
"If we're gonna make Texas and Harris County safer, it's not just law enforcement, it's the entire community that must be involved. And parents and educators can learn from this website, and also of extreme value is that you can offer through the website anonymously. They're not gonna be tracked. It is all of our responsibility to end this scourge of gang violence."
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The FBI is teaming up several local law enforcement agencies on a new initiative, billed as a proactive attack on gangs. The campaign includes the use of billboards and a website.
The website www.stophoustongangs.org was created to inform and educate the public about criminal gangs and provide a way for residents to report anonymous tips about potential criminal gang activity. This community policing initiative was designed to help keep our communities safe from gangs and the related violence they bring.
The website is a measure that utilizes technology to partner with the community and increase awareness through education regarding the threat of criminal gang activity. Residents can also access information about prevention and intervention programs.
Among the most important features:
Option to anonymously report gang activity
Statistics on gang activity
How to tell if criminal activity is related to gangs
Listing of the gangs at work in the Houston-Harris County area
How to look for the signs and markings, such as tattoos of gang members
HOUSTON -- Angel Ponce's life is about promise. He's going to college and he's working for the City of Houston. You would never know he was once a gang member who was initiated at age 10. The initiation involved getting "clicked," or beat up for a minute and a half, by 5 gang members.
"I remember standing up from the ground, bleeding from my nose, busted lip, swollen eye, bruises all over my body, I felt like I could hardly breathe," said Ponce. "I got tattoos representing the gang. I started wearing the style of clothing of the gang. I started getting in trouble in school because I couldn't concentrate."
A lifestyle of alcohol and drugs led to a bad car accident that left Ponce in a wheelchair. It was also a wakeup call to get out of the gang.
"I had to relocate, move to another side of town," said Ponce. "I had to fade away."
Now there's one less gang member in Houston, but there are so many others. In fact, there are more than 10,000 gang members who belong to 200 gangs in the Houston area, and 50 percent of gang crime here is drug-related, according to new statistics released Thursday.
"It is all of our responsibility to end the scourge of gang violence," said Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos