Gang activity rises in eastern Hillsborough

A young man wearing gang colors is taken into custody by a gang task force outside the Strawberry Festival last month. The task force has members from 52 law enforcement agencies.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

A young man wearing gang colors is taken into custody by a gang task force outside the Strawberry Festival last month. The task force has members from 52 law enforcement agencies.

BRANDON — Gangs are all over Hillsborough County, and they're right here in your back yard.

Although they've always had a presence in the county, the popularity of such groups has steadily risen in recent years, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Marc Wilder.

In the past six years, the number of active gang members has more than doubled to about 4,300 in about 100 gangs, Wilder said

"It's glamorized in movies, music videos, you name it," Wilder said. "And who is the most impressionable? Our children. Kids are looking to belong, and gangs give that to them."

According to state law, a gang is a group of more than three individuals whose primary activity is criminal and/or delinquent. They usually have signs, symbols, colors and names that represent them.

In eastern Hillsborough, the Plant City and Dover areas are considered hotbeds of gang activity, Wilder said. In Tampa, the Sulphur Springs area is known for having the largest concentration.

Wilder, who works with the sheriff's gang unit, points to recent murders in Brandon as a prominent example of where gangs and their members are popping up.

Across the street from a church in late December, three men were shot and stabbed to death as they played video games in a backyard shed at a home on Oakwood Avenue. One man who died, 22-year-old Tony Black, was a known Bloods member.

Deputies said 19-year-old Esteban Merchan, who was also a member of the Bloods gang, killed Black and the others. An Orlando man was also charged in the same incident.

The murders rocked the quiet community and left neighbors bewildered.

"It didn't shock me," Wilder said. "The fact is that gangs are out there committing crimes every day."

Burglary, drug dealing, grand theft auto and other crimes have been linked to gangs, Wilder said.

That's why gang task force members also comb events like the Florida State Fair and the Strawberry Festival, where they scope crowds for gang colors or kids starting trouble.

Blue bandanas or red shoelaces and a red polo shirt act as silent sirens to law enforcement, who pat down suspects in search of weapons or tattoos linking them to known gangs. In the past, gang members have come to the fair with loaded guns and tried to start huge fights.

This year, members of rival gangs Sur 13 and Norte 14 showed up at the Strawberry Festival.

Members come from all races, ages, gender and ethnic backgrounds, Wilder said. He has seen gangbangers as young as 8 and as old as 80.

"There are gangs that are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, multiracial, multigender," he said. "There are white supremacist gangs, and there are terrorist organizations. People from all different backgrounds are in gangs. Some are very well educated and others are military personnel, while some are in motorcycle gangs and others in prison gangs."

Wilder tried to avoid naming gangs because he said that publicity only encourages more crime. He encourages parents to watch their children for changes in behavior, friends and dress.

"If you're paying attention, you're going to notice if something's not right," Wilder said. "Who's going to know best? You are."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454. Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report.

Gang activity rises in eastern Hillsborough 04/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 3:56pm]

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