Houston grapples with gang resurgence

The accidental killing of a toddler has raised concerns about the spread here of MS-13, a Central American gang.

While other cities were reporting daily on drive-by shootings and gang violence in the late 1990s, Houston's headlines were relatively free of those stories.

A full-scale effort to curtail gang activity, following the brutal rape and murder of two teenage girls during a gang initiation in 1993, was already under way as Houston confronted a culture of violence playing out on its streets. Those efforts, for the most part, seemed to be working - until earlier this month.

Now, the killing of a toddler during a drug-related robbery has reignited feelings of vulnerability and raised concerns about growing gang activity, especially after it was learned that the young men being charged in the shooting were members of the violent Central American gang, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

The gang has long been known for its ties to Los Angeles, New York, and northern Virginia, but this was the first Houstonians had heard of the MS-13 in their city. In fact, the FBI, which recently created a task force dedicated to fighting the gang, says MS-13 cliques are growing quickly in Houston and cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Omaha, Neb.; and Providence, R.I.

Some here say to fight the problem will require the same public frankness by local officials that occurred in 1993 when former Mayor Bob Lanier spoke publicly about the city's gang problem and then created a tough anti-gang task force to deal with it. Experts also say that getting the public involved in addressing this type of crime is critical to a city's success.

"[In the 1990s], the public was scared. They wanted specific knowledge about the gangs to try to help protect themselves," says Kim Ogg, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston and head of the city's first antigang office established after the 1993 murders. She says strong public policy, community awareness fueled by the media, and "good old-fashioned policing" put a lot of dangerous gang members in prison. "It made the city a force to be reckoned with. You did not see Houston fall to the rampant gang violence of a Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York."

Yet with the revelation of an influx of MS-13 gang members, 20 of whom have been arrested in the past several weeks, others say Houston shouldn't hang on to outdated policies.

Since the Houston Police Department has a policy against publicly naming gangs for fear of encouraging more violence, most of what is known about the MS-13 gang and its influence in Houston has come from the Harris County Sheriff's Department and the local FBI field office.

The first signs of the gang in the area were evident more than a decade ago, says sheriff's department spokesman John Martin. "But this latest incident, the shooting of Aiden Naquin, brought this gang to the forefront. Prior to this incident, they certainly were not as well known to the public."

In fact, the city's daily newspaper, the Houston Chronicle recently recommended in an editorial that the police department change its longstanding policy on naming gangs in the press to "... help Houston residents to protect themselves and give law-enforcement agencies essential gang- busting intelligence."

Many law-enforcement agencies have similar no-mention policies, and they are justifiable - to a point, says Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association and former sergeant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

He remembers an instance in L.A. when a reporter wrote about a gang shootout, naming the gangs and referring to the dead gang member as "the victim." Sergeant McBride and his officers were flagged down the next day by the victimized gang, who had the newspaper in hand. "'Look, they're calling us weak. Now we've got to hit back,'" he remembers them saying. But McBride cautions that many of these no-mention policies don't help deter crime when it comes to well-known gangs interested solely in money. And the silence may do even more to injure public trust.

In the past decade, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number and size of transnational street gangs such as MS-13, Michael Garcia, assistant secretary of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told a House subcommittee recently.

And Houston might be expected to see increasing numbers because of its proximity to the Mexican border. In fact, ICE considers these gangs a threat to national security, as witnessed by the Feb. 10 arrest of Lester Rivera-Paz, the alleged leader of the Honduran MS-13 organization who was caught trying to cross illegally into the country at McAllen, Texas. He is wanted by Honduran officials for his involvement in the massacre of 28 bus passengers in that country.

But while many MS-13 gang members are in the country illegally, Mai Fernandez believes an immigration response is not the solution to the problem. She is the CEO of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, which serves about 3,000 youths - most of whom are involved in gangs or have been at one point in their lives.

First, she says, the majority were born in the US and second, fighting the desire to join gangs means creating alternatives to them. "I cannot stress enough how much boredom plays into gang membership," she says.

She is also very much in favor of a strong response by law enforcement when gang members commit crimes. Two years ago, a Washington neighborhood was terrorized by a spate of gang-related killings. Police worked quickly to apprehend and arrest gang members, and several are serving life sentences for their crimes.

But the community didn't stop there, Ms. Fernandez says. People realized that they must work together to prevent crime, not just respond to it. So they created the Gang Intervention Partnership, which brings together police, probation officers, prosecutors, and social-service providers to intervene in the lives of high-risk youths. The result: No gang murders have occurred in the past two years.

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