Gangs in Manatee: younger, smarter, blending in

Bradenton HeraldMarch 31, 2013 

MANATEE -- A young boy is bullied at school. He's smart, makes good grades and enjoys reading more than sports. That's when a classmate, who happens to be a gang member, steps in to fight for the boy, offering him protection and friendship.

In return, the boy pledges his loyalty and uses his brains for the gang's benefit.

This is just one of many scenarios detectives are seeing as the makeup of gangs change.

"They bring kids like that up," said Sgt. Gary Combee, of the Manatee County Sheriff's Gang Suppression Unit.

"They don't beat them in because they have something they want: intelligence."

Manatee County has 24 documented gangs, half of which are active. At any given time, there are 650 to 950 documented gang members here.

And those members are constantly changing as children follow in their family's footsteps, women take an active role and former racial and cultural divides disappear.

This evolution has changed the ways gangs operate, the crimes they commit, citizens they affect and how they are identified, requiring detectives to adapt their investigative techniques.

Gangs recruit youth

At 8 years old, a boy took his first puff of marijuana.

"His uncle gave it to him. His mom didn't know," said Xtavia Bailey, who volunteers at the Manatee County jail. "The guys were outside chilling, and little boys want to be like big boys. And they're passing marijuana to little kids."

Bailey was told the story by an incarcerated juvenile.

"These are not the Department of Juvenile Justice kids," Bailey said. "They don't hold you there for attempted murder."

Children as young as 5 are associating with the criminal organizations, many because their parents or older siblings are involved.

"Unless we catch kids before fifth or sixth grade, you're losing them," Combee said. "Drug deals are moving to younger kids in high school and middle school. Our thing is to try not to let this become generational. They're exposed to it at such a young age."

While doing gang training with teachers at Lincoln Middle School, Combee said he glanced around the library.

"I look over at a poster and in the middle is gang graffiti. Almost every poster had a gang sign," Combee said. "If you didn't know what you were looking for, it would just look like scribbling. Teachers were amazed; they didn't think it was so blatant."

Detectives work with faculty and staff each year, teaching them to identify gang insignia or other signs of activity within the schools.

Women take active role

Several women have been charged in the Manatee County Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization cases, in which prosecutors charge an entire criminal enterprise using evidence from previous and ongoing crimes.

Laura Garcia was a defendant in the first SUR-13 investigation. She faced predicate charges of carrying a knife to school, battery and shoplifting ski masks and shoes from a Bradenton store.

Tija Morgan did time in state prison after being investigated in the Third Shift RICO case. She was charged on two occasions with possession of cocaine with intent to sell. The Third Shift gang was known for its involvement with narcotics.

"Women are one of the fastest-growing groups of gang members," said Detective Ben Pieper, of the Bradenton Police Gang Unit. "They don't want to just be a den mother where they run the safe house. They feel they have to prove themselves more. They want to be out on the streets selling narcotics, doing drive-bys."

Combee said women want equality, and have learned to use their sexuality to benefit the gang.

"It can be a distraction or an attraction for the commitment of a crime," said Combee.

A former SUR-13 member who spoke with the Bradenton Herald said he had several female cousins in the gang. Women lure male victims from clubs or bars, he explained, to the parking lot where other members rob them.

Hybrid gangs on the rise

A gang member goes to prison. He or she is looking for protection. They form a relationship with a member of a similar sect and discuss their gangs' structure and methods of operation.

When they are released, they continue working together or network with each other's respective gangs.

"They pull something from each," Combee said. "Some won't allow mixing, but they will work for each other."

The formation of hybrid gangs is blurring racial and cultural lines that once existed.

"They try to hide the fact by saying they're a rap group," Pieper said. "Very few gangs are just race-oriented, but you still have your extremists and hate groups that abide by those rules."

Hybrid gangs are also created when members take ideas from various national organizations and meld them with local ideas.

"I've videotaped a lot of guys doing hand signs for me, and they're doing it complete wrong, but that's what they were taught," Pieper said. "We weed out what is correct nationally, then the other stuff is still correct locally. We monitor that and document how they evolve."

Stereotypes are broken

In the mid-2000s, gang signs were being drawn in an employee bathroom at a grocery store in East Manatee.

Detectives began to investigate, with clues leading them to a boy from a Jewish family.

When detectives went to his Lakewood Ranch home, the parents denied their son having any involvement with gangs.

So a detective asked to see the child's bedroom, and the mother hesitantly agreed.

The detective chuckled when he opened the door. The boy's bedroom was full of gang graffiti.

"The mother started crying," Combee said. "Everybody's transient. It can be a kid of any religious background."

Not long after that, the home was hit by a drive-by shooting.

"Not everybody in a gang is a thug," Combee said, adding that often intelligent or athletic kids are targeted. "A majority of gang kids come from low-income families, but that's not a necessity across the board. You can have the richest kids from Northwest Bradenton or Lakewood Ranch or the poorest kids from Oneco or Samoset."

Technology changes dynamics

Photos of a Palmetto boy flashing gang signs on Facebook put him on the radar of the Manatee County Sheriff's Tactical Gang Unit.

When detectives gathering intelligence came across the photos, the unit was informed. Despite the boy not being a documented gang member, when he was placed on probation a few months later unit detectives performed a curfew check at his home because evidence existed of him associating with a gang.

The evolution of social media has changed gang recruiting and, in turn, investigative methods.

Members can communicate using Facebook and other social media sites. That requires detectives to monitor the Internet for any clues to gang activity or association.

"We use social media. Kids can't go without it," said Sgt. Chris D'Agostino, of the tactical unit. "People in prison have their girlfriend or other people keeping up their accounts."

A quick search on YouTube or Twitter reveals numerous accounts and content with gang terminology, some of it referencing Manatee County, "B-Town," and "941."

Members harder to spot

Gang members are becoming less flamboyant -- hiding their tattoos and not wearing specific colors -- in an effort to avoid racketeering charges.

"Several years ago, gangs used to say you have to represent at all times, then they learned we used that against them," Pieper said. "People have learned not to call themselves anything. They think that's their way around it, but it's not. You're still going to be charged with racketeering if you're a group of individuals committing crime."

Anything to make money

Crimes committed are moving beyond home invasions and shootings.

"Everything from narcotics, weapons trafficking, human trafficking, arson, Internet crime -- if there's a way for them to make money, they'll do it," Pieper said.

D'Agostino said there has been an influx of gangs committing tax fraud.

"They can fill out a fraudulent return and get $5,000 from the government," D'Agostino said. "That's easier than selling 1,000 pieces of rock cocaine, and the risk is a lot lower."

That was the case for Justino Santana, who was arrested under the RICO statute for alleged criminal dealings with the Brown Pride Locos gang.

While incarcerated, law enforcement noticed Santana having frequent phone conversations or visitations with two of his sisters. After listening to the recorded conversations, detectives deciphered codes they were using to discuss filing fraudulent tax forms.

A subpoena of the women's bank records showed U.S. Treasury checks being deposited into their accounts for numerical amounts discussed with Santana at the Manatee County jail.

The siblings deposited five separate checks from the U.S. Treasury totaling approximately $15,800 in fraudulent funds, according to documents filed with the Manatee County Clerk of Courts.

Reasons to join vary

The former gang member told the Herald he started hanging out with the "cool" crowd when he was in middle school. As he heard people referring to fellow gang members as "family," he decided to join. He was an outcast at home and was willing to do whatever it took to get love and attention.

"It's a self-esteem issue," D'Agostino said. "It's about fitting in. Something is often lacking in the family dynamic."

Some want power, respect and security.

"They need love, rules, structure. They need to feel that they belong to something and the gang is going to give that to them," Pieper said. "The gang is there 24 hours a day. The gang is going to give them rules and it's going to reward them."

Some of the blame goes to movies and other media that glorify the gang lifestyle as an adventure.

"All they show is fast cars, jewelry, money, girls," Pieper said. "They don't show the reality that you're constantly looking over your shoulder for rivals and law enforcement, that you're living in nasty, rundown homes or on the street, that police are taking everything you own because it was bought with illegal drug proceeds."

So units continue to investigate racketeering cases. Detectives are going on the streets to identify at-risk youth and provide intervention before they commit to a criminal lifestyle. Community organizations are providing activities to fill whatever void creates the urge for children to join.

"If you don't take responsibility for your town, who will?" asked Jerry Parrish, teen outreach coordinator at Manatee YMCA.

"We've got to take care of our kids. If we don't, it will become a crazy epidemic. If everybody in this town cared for one human being, it would be a different community."

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service