Houston Community News >> Houston Police, FBI Fight Gang Problem

8/26/2006 Houston - FBI agents will work alongside Houston police in the office and on the streets as part of the latest counterattack on the city's ongoing gang violence, Chief Harold Hurtt announced Friday.

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Flanked by officials from several federal agencies and the Harris County Sheriff's Department, all of whom will join the effort, Hurtt said the new task force would target violent street gangs through shared expertise, intelligence and manpower, with 10 FBI agents in the field.

"The goal is to target the most violent gangs in Houston ... and disrupt and dismantle the gangs themselves," said Hurtt, who has announced a series of measures to confront a dramatic increase in gang-related homicides since he joined the Houston Police Department in 2004.

Earlier this year, Houston police cited 47 gang-related murders last year compared with 21 in 2004. On Friday, the head of HPD's gang division said HPD identified 25 during the first six months of 2006, a 92 percent increase from the same period in 2005. In response, Hurtt expanded the department's gang unit in May 2005. At the start of this year, he created a squad within HPD's homicide division specifically targeting gang-related murders in response to the spike there.

One of those deaths occurred in June, when a 15-year-old boy was stabbed during what police said was a gang feud at a Montrose-area park. Ashley Paige Benton, 16, has been charged as an adult in connection with the June 6 death of Gabriel Granillo. Police said about 30 people were involved in the fight in which baseball bats, golf clubs, tire irons and machetes were used. Granillo's family members suspected that Granillo and his brother, Steven, 17, had links to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, an especially violent gang with roots in El Salvador.

Hurtt offered assurances that HPD would work alongside immigration authorities when it came to dealing with gangs such as MS-13, whose members often are illegal immigrants. Hurtt has taken heat recently for HPD's policy on illegal immigrants in which officers don't make inquiries about citizenship status. Hurtt explained that Houston gangs possess varying degrees of sophistication — the better organized groups are those that aim to make money through such nefarious means as narcotics, human smuggling, theft and other crimes.

The new task force also will include the Texas Department of Public Safety and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Drug Enforcement Administration. The agencies will also work to uncover any gangs found to have ties to terrorism groups, said Dan Perales, assistant chief of HPD's special investigations. "If there is a nexus to those groups we will pass that information along," Perales said.

During Friday's news conference, Perales and the other law enforcement officials did their best not to stoke fears about the spike in gang violence, saying that such violence has long existed. HPD Capt. Mike Graham, who oversees the gang division, also urged people not to blame Hurricane Katrina evacuees. He said there was some "fallout" when drug dealers from Louisiana encroached on dealers' territories here.

Hurtt said he asked FBI director Robert Mueller last summer for help. "I told him we could use assistance not only in personnel, but also in the sharing of data and intelligence," Hurtt said. Roderick Beverly, FBI special agent in charge in Houston, said the agents assigned to the unit already have expertise in gangs. He also said the new responsibilities will not detract from counterterrorism investigations.

The task force, he added, represents a growing trend with the bureau.

(Contributed by Chronicle)