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Gang fight pairs police in Manatee, Sarasota counties

MANATEE — The fight against street gangs that may be moving south from Manatee into Sarasota is strengthening an anti-gang partnership between sheriff’s offices in the two counties.

Sheriff’s officials in Sarasota say they believe effective crackdowns on gangs in Manatee are sending some gang members over the county line to commit crimes, and authorities in Manatee have already assisted them in a gang investigation that led to arrests.

Others, including Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube, argue that Sarasota most likely has had a homegrown gang problem all along. But the focus appears to be less on what is causing it and more on the desire to get out in front of any gang problems ahead for Sarasota.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office officials have begun speaking publicly of their belief that they are facing a migration of gang members who have been squeezed by heavy enforcement here in Manatee.

That comes in the wake of an investigation in Sarasota that revealed SUR-13 members or associates from Manatee committed more than 20 burglaries along Fruitville and Clark roads since August.

Three women were arrested in Manatee County after pawning items from the burglaries, and face charges of dealing in stolen property in both counties. And Robert Williams, 27, also of Manatee is wanted on warrants stemming from the burglaries, according to Sarasota Sheriff’s Maj. Kevin Kenney.

Warrants for the arrest of all involved were obtained by detectives in Manatee and Sarasota working together, and authorities in Manatee are pledging any help their expertise in fighting gangs may offer.

“We have always believed that pressure from Manatee was going to cause a displacement effect,” Kenney said. “We make no bones about it, Manatee is doing a helluva job. They helped us big time with this recent investigation, and we appreciate their partnership as we look get in front of this before it escalates.”

Steube agreed that a partnership is essential to the fight against gangs in Manatee and Sarasota, but said he believes the presence of gangs in Sarasota may not be the result of a migration from Manatee because of law enforcement efforts.

Still, those efforts have been significant.

In recent years, Manatee sheriff’s investigators and the Florida Attorney General’s Office have obtained indictments and convictions of dozens of Manatee members of SUR-13, Brown Pride Locos and 3rd Shift gangs using anti-racketeering laws.

Outrage over the gang problem in Manatee hit a new high in May 2007 after the killing of 9-year-old Stacy Williams by a stray bullet fired by a SUR-13 gang member during a street fight.

After the shooting, several racketeering cases went to court in which dozens of gang members were tried based on the totality of their criminal records. Prosecutors began to prove that gang members’ crimes were committed to benefit their gang.

“I am convinced that gang activity has been in Sarasota for quite some time,” Steube said. “They just happened to arrest some people from Manatee County, but I don’t think criminals see county lines.”

Even if there has been migration of gang members to Sarasota, it has not curtailed gang activity in Manatee.

Steube said he believes SUR-13 and numerous other gangs are still quite active in Manatee, including recent sporadic drive-by shootings. Sheriff’s detectives believe there are more than a dozen active gangs in Manatee with more than 700 members. Another racketeerings case is being built against another Manatee gang, although Steube declined to name which one.

A double homicide on the streets of Manatee this summer also highlighted ongoing gang violence here. No arrests have been made in the killing of Irwin Figueroa and Rubin Gonzalez-Garduno, both 18, who were killed while walking along 59th Avenue Drive East on July 3. Sheriff’s officials said both men were involved in gangs.

The gang problem is not one that can be boxed in by county lines, but it is rather a statewide scourge that has appeared across the Tampa Bay area, in Polk, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota, Steube said.

“I don’t know that they are moving around or not. I know that they are a problem in every community in this region. This is not something where we are ever going to be able to say, ‘All right, we are done,’” Steube said.

A U.S. Department of Justice report released this year said there are 27,000 gangs active in the United States with about 788,000 members. A 2004 Justice Department report also stated that migrations of gang members are a reality, but rarely due to law enforcement crackdowns.

More often, gangs members relocate to communities for social reasons such as moves with family members, or for a crack at better drug markets, according to the study. The study said that rather than a product of migration, a community’s gang problem is “primarily and inherently homegrown and localized by nature.”

Making a judgement on a possible migration of gang members out of Manatee County may be difficult, unless gang members confess to it, which is unlikely, Manatee sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow said.

But law enforcement in both counties have felt the effects of various enforcement operations in the past, he noted.

“It does happen if we do a prostitution sting, you will see the prostitution turn up down the road in Sarasota for a while, and vice versa,” Bristow said.