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.
Those criminal acts include home invasions, robbery, kidnapping, murder, extortion, money laundering and drug trafficking at a level alarming even to law enforcement.
“As gang members and drug traffickers become more violent and brazen, they pose a rising threat to law enforcement now and in the future,” notes the report, which states that gang recruitment is at an all-time high.
“Gangs now have a younger, more violent membership.”
There are at least 10,000 “documented” gang members in Houston and the surrounding counties, according to Houston Police.
The total, which authorities concede is conservative, is drawn from criminals caught by law enforcement and identified as gangsters. Their profiles are pumped into a database shared by multiple agencies trying to fight them.
“It is a national trend that they are moving from the inner cities to suburbs to rural areas,” said Capt. Dale Brown, commander of the Houston Police Department’s gang division. “There is virtually no part of Houston or the surrounding area that doesn’t have some kind of gang presence.”
Drugs going wholesale
Authorities say gangs working with international drug traffickers have shifted to selling drugs at the wholesale level, instead of street corners.
That has meant more cash and better access to weapons.
A homemade grenade thought to belong to Mexico’s La Familia cartel was found in Harris County, according to the report, and a gang member in Kleberg County was caught with a grenade launcher.
The narco ties are thick. About 50 percent of gangsters who are arrested are caught on drug charges, according to the HPD.
Authorities liken them to marauding pirates, spreading mayhem as they fly the flags of crews like the “Southwest Cholos,” the “59 Bounty Hunters,” “Treetop Bloods” and the area’s second-largest gang, the “52 Hoover Crips.”
Last year, for the first time in the region that stretches from Houston to the Mexican border, 10 ranking members and associates of the notorious “Texas Syndicate” were sent to prison after being collectively prosecuted for multiple murders, robberies and other crimes under a law created a generation ago to battle New York organized crime.
They took orders from Texas Syndicate general Francisco “Butcher” Nuncio Jr., who is covered in tattoos, including a huge “TS” on his back.
Nuncio pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years, but the Bureau of Prisons has no public record of his whereabouts.
Indictments being felt
The Texas Syndicate, like some other top-tier gangs, has officers, secret meetings, rules and a death penalty for members who betray them.
One unsolved gang murder involves a former Houston captain for the Hermanidad de Pistoleros Latinos, Spanish for “Brotherhood of Latin Gunmen.” His butchered torso was found floating in a trunk in Galveston Bay in 2006.
He reportedly skimmed drug profits from the gang.
“They are all committing crimes,” said Brian Ritchie, head of the FBI Houston Division’s task force on violent crimes and gangs.
“I would not say they are getting more violent. I would not say (gang crime) is going down — home invasions, rip-offs of other crooks, innocent business owners.”
Authorities do, however, note that for the first time in a decade, there has been a “noticeable disruption” of the operations of some top-tier gangs, such as the Brotherhood of Latin Gunmen and the Texas Syndicate, as a result of a wave of indictments.
Keeping lower profile
That does not include the Houstones, who are known for wearing Astros-type emblems and sporting local area codes and are seen as posing the greatest local threat. They continue to grow in strength and numbers, according to the intelligence reports.
“The gang threat is very real,” said Brown, of HPD. “They generate a lot of crime, and they create a lot of fear.”
Brown cautioned that it is impossible to know how many gang members are out there and that the numbers are probably conservative, as they only note those who have been caught.
And as the gangs have expanded their international connections and moved more into higher-level drug-dealing, some are keeping a lower profile, he said.
“You are actually seeing less violence and less open conflict between these gangs because it is not good for business,” Brown said. “As you see them more involved in drugs, you’ll see them less involved in conflict.
“They don’t want to draw any more attention to themselves.”
Informing the public
Local gangs whose members know the streets have enabled organized crime groups from outside the United States to more efficiently move drugs farther into the country as well as to ship cash proceeds and weapons south of the border, contends the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“There is no doubt about it; local gangs in Houston are connected to cartels in Mexico,” said Wendell Campbell, a spokesman for the DEA’s Houston Division. “They are in position; they have the influence and the connections.”
Some of the gangs’ crimes are random, such as carjackings, but others are well-planned missions, such as hitting the home of a rival trafficker who may be rumored to have cash or stash.
“They may by design have somebody go in and buy 2 or 3 ounces, all the while knowing there is another 2 or 3 kilos, and they are back at night to kick in the door,” Campbell said. “And they don’t call the cops unless somebody gets hurt in the process.”
He pointed to a new website, stophoustongangs.org, which was launched last month by state and local officials to get better information to the public about how to spot gangsters and offer a way to give tips to cops about crime.
Councilman James Rodriguez, who grew up on the city’s East End, said he and others continue to push back on gang activity in the community by trying to keep kids from being pulled into the gang lifestyle.
“I’m told old gang-bangers are starting to get out,” Rodriguez said of veteran criminals who went to prison during a crackdown in the 1990s. “It is a constant challenge, always ongoing...