A known gang member walked up to a federal investigator.
Go ahead, he said to the agent. Search me.
The gang member knew the encounter would happen no matter who approached whom.
"We're wearing our uniforms, they're wearing theirs," said Mike Fabyanic, a gang expert and Tampa-based special agent with Homeland Security Investigations. "We're going to have a conversation."
On the streets, at festivals and around crime scenes, the Tampa Bay area's multi-agency gang task force — made up of local, state and federal law enforcement officers, including Fabyanic — is one of the most proactive efforts in the state in preventing and addressing gang crimes, he said.
But with more than 2,000 documented gang members, Hillsborough County still sees its share of gang activity. And two recent incidents in east Hillsborough have called attention to the transnational and local hybrid gangs:
• Though not a gang-related crime, deputies say a Dover Locos member caused a May 31 hit-and-run crash in Valrico that hospitalized Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee's wife. Raul De Alejandro, 22, was arrested after he ran a red light, T-boned Rhonda Gee's car, drove away until his car broke down and then ran away.
• Another Dover Locos member died this week after instigating a drive-by shooting that sparked a gunfight in Dover, deputies said. The bullets exchanged by rivaling Dover Locos and Sur-13 gang members killed driver Jose Luis Hernandez, 22. His cousin and passenger, 22-year-old Pedro Hernandez, is charged with second-degree murder. Though not the fatal shooter, he's accused under the state's felony murder rule of being an accomplice when someone is killed during a felony act.
The shooting, like any gang-on-gang violence, opens the possibility of retaliation.
Gang enforcement and prevention is a top priority for Sheriff Gee, said office spokesman Larry McKinnon.
"We have zero tolerance for any gang activity, and we're going to be relentless in our efforts to stop any gang activity in Hillsborough County," McKinnon said.
Fabyanic, the federal special agent, says gangs are embracing an increasingly violent popular culture.
"We tend, over the last few years, to really start seeing an uptick in violence," he said, "and we're encountering more and more gang members walking around brazenly with firearms."
Those effects could be seen in east Hillsborough, where Fabyanic says the concentration of Hispanic gangs may be attributed to the area's growing Hispanic population. Affiliation with Hispanic gangs such as Sur-13, the Norteños and MS-13 often runs along family lines. The children of migrant workers also may join gangs, tempted by the camaraderie and easy spoils of theft and drug dealing, he said.
Gangs have traditionally profited through crimes like robberies, burglaries and selling drugs and stolen property, Fabyanic said. But recently, he's seen an increase in aggravated identity theft by gang members who are in the country illegally.
The region's gang task force counters gangs' criminal activities by making its presence known. Task force officials interact with gang members to deter crimes and defuse tensions.
"They're not waiting for a gang flareup to respond," Fabyanic said. "They have their people engaged and out there trying to prevent escalations of gang violence."
Frequent interactions mean task force officials know some gang members by name and have cultivated a relationship of "mutual respect," he said.
The task force also gathers information through these talks. Gang members won't dish about their own group but often know about what's going on with rival gangs, he said.
Law enforcement agencies conduct periodic roundups to destabilize gangs. In April, federal authorities arrested 10 Tampa Bay area gang members as part of a national sting dubbed "Operation Nefarious." Targeting gang leaders hobbles internal structures, causing conflict as remaining members fight for power, Fabyanic said.
"If you can take those individuals out," he said, "you kind of cut the head off the snake."
A state statute allows prosecutors to pursue enhanced punishments against gang members who commit crimes with the proven intent of promoting or benefitting the interests of a criminal gang.
But in communities, gang members still remain visible. They walk through malls and drive down streets searching for targets. And they constantly tax police forces — not just for gang-related crimes, but with rambunctious parties and domestic violence situations.
"The Tampa Bay area is not Miami," Fabyanic said. "We're not Chicago . . . We're not L.A. But we do have a pretty prevalent gang presence that is probably never going to go away."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.