By Walter Pacheco
The Orlando Sentinel
CENTRAL FLORIDA — Almost 1 out of 10 of the state's documented gang members live in Central Florida.
That's almost 6,000 just in Orange, Polk and Volusia counties, and they are gaining strength, sheriff's offices' records show. Law-enforcement agencies across Central Florida consider street gangs domestic terrorists, and are holding them responsible for increases in violent crimes, gun and drug trafficking, and other criminal activity.
Gang units and other experts are finding that they are also evolving into technologically savvy organizations that are recruiting troubled juveniles through Internet chat sites and blogs.
Law-enforcement officials are concerned that gangs' growth and sophistication in Central Florida is an omen of more violence to come.
"I thought we had turned the tide, but in the last two years, I've seen an increase in violent gang activity, not just in Polk, but also other parts of Central Florida," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, which were last updated in the late 1990s, indicate that there are more than 250 active street gangs in Florida. FDLE stopped updating records because not all gang units divulged their data and some just stopped entering information.
Although most gang activity historically was concentrated in South Florida, Central Florida's population boom during the past seven years has provided fertile ground for gangs.
There now are more than 2,500 gang members and associates in Orange County and about 75 active gangs. Polk also has about 2,500 gang members and 18 street gangs. Volusia follows with 600 gang members and nearly 50 documented gangs, while Seminole has fewer than 250 gang members.
Gang units in Lake and Osceola counties did not provide information on the number of gangs or gang members.
Law-enforcement agencies did not provide the names of gangs in Central Florida and provided few details about their crimes, saying that the publicity might aid recruitment efforts.
"If we name one gang and not another, then the one that wasn't mentioned will go and commit crimes to get the media's attention. It gives them credibility," said Rusty Keeble, Florida Gang Investigators Association (FGIA) president. "It's a fine line, but the secrecy is to protect the community."
But gangs now are using technology to gain credibility and recruits.
The evolution of Internet chat rooms and unsupervised blogs, such as MySpace, Facebook and other blogging sites, has helped expand the reach of established gangs and created hybrid gangs, which adopt clothing and other characteristics of gang culture.
"Gangs are communicating better with each other through MySpace and other sites and recruiting more people that way," said Adam Clausen of the Volusia County Sheriff's Office Crime Suppression Unit.
"The Internet also helps connect people who follow rap music or television programs that glamorize gangs."
The Internet has aided gangs in selling drugs, pirated movies and music, and gang-related clothing online. Some Web sites are password-protected and accessible only to members. They often include false information to mislead law enforcement, according to a 2005 national gang report commissioned by the Department of Justice and other agencies that combat gang activity.
In the past 12 months, gangs have been responsible for drive-by shootings, battery on law-enforcement officials and killings across Central Florida, sheriff's office records show.
The Crips and Bloods are national street gangs synonymous with bloody violence in Los Angeles and other parts of the West Coast. Members from both camps have steadily migrated toward the East Coast and recruited members in Florida.
"I'm personally convinced that we are going to see more violence in Florida," Judd said.
There are about 70 inmates doing time in Orange County Jail for gang-related crimes, said Keeble.
Deputy Rob Hernandez of the Orange County Sheriff's Office Gang Unit said local gangs have matured from painting graffiti on residential and business walls to committing many of the violent crimes that plague the county.
"Most of the graffiti we see is street art and not `tagging,' which includes symbols and designs related to specific gangs and used as turf symbols. What we do see are gang members involved in homicide, burglaries, auto theft and other crimes," Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the evolution of gangs is inevitable, but he and other agencies blame most gang proliferation on a "dysfunctional juvenile system" and not the Internet, television or rap music.
"There are no consequences. Juveniles arrested for committing a gang-related crime spend only a few days in juvenile detention, and then they get out and are even more involved in violent crimes," Hernandez said.
Copyright 2007 Orlando Sentinel
Technology assisting gang recruiting in Fla.