A Night Inside South Florida’s Gang Wars

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Jim-DeFede-600x450 Jim DeFede
Jim DeFede joined CBS4 News in January 2006, providing reg...
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South Florida Crime

MIAMI (CBS4) — Spend a night with the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Gang Unit, and its commander, Lt. Luis Almaguer, and you will be forever on the move.

On a recent night in which the gang task force was operating, Almaguer and his fellow cops were racing on calls from Liberty City to Miami Gardens and CBS4’s Jim DeFede joined them every step of the way.

There are at least 250 gangs in Miami-Dade County with a minimum of 2,000 gang members.

By comparison, Miami-Dade’s gang unit is comprised of Almaguer, three sergeants, and thirteen officers. That’s 17 against 2,000. Add to that as many as another 10,000 “associate” gang members – hangers on who aren’t formally members of the gang but often participate in their crimes – and you quickly get the sense of how tall a challenge the police are facing.

On this night in March, the county’s north end was in the midst of one of its bloodiest months in recent memory. At least 30 individuals would be shot — almost all of it attributable to street gangs. Of course not all of the victims were gang members – some, like 5-year-old Mckayla Bazile – were caught in the crossfire.

When the task force gathered earlier that afternoon for a briefing, it was the violence that was on everyone’s mind.

“Gentlemen, we’ve had numerous shootings up here on the north end, you guys need to back each other up,” Almaguer said.

In addition to Miami-Dade’s gang unit, this task force will include officers from Opa-Locka, Aventura, North Miami Beach, Sunny Isles, Golden Beach, Miami Gardens, and a half dozen other agencies.

The night jumps off with a series of calls. Cruising though a 79th Street gas station, a Sunny Isles task force officer spooked one of the drivers at the pumps. When the driver realized there was a police officer in the unmarked car cruising the gas station, he abandoned his vehicle and took off running. A quick check of the license plates revealed that the car was stolen.

As the officer in pursuit shouts out the man’s direction over the radio, Almaguer pleads for more information.

“Keep calling it,” Almaguer demanded over his radio. “Set up the box.”

The “box” is cop speak for establishing a perimeter around the neighborhood. In a matter of minutes police surround the area hoping to cut off any avenue of escape.

Almaguer takes one corner, and begins stopping cars leaving the area to make sure the suspect isn’t hiding in one of them. Police dogs are brought in as a police helicopter circles overhead.

Sure enough in less than 30 minutes they find him. Fearing police had a description of his clothing, the man stripped down to his boxers, believing he would be less conspicuous in his underwear.

“Fantastic,” Almaguer said as he walked up to where the suspect was hiding.

“He was sitting right there in front of the house,” a detective tells the lieutenant.

“Yeah, well that’s what you get,” Almaguer said.

A homeowner spotted the half naked 20-year-old hiding in her bushes and called 911.

“He said somebody let him hold the car,” Almaguer said. “Somebody let me hold it.”

The car was stolen from Miami Lakes and the boxer bandit admitted being a member of an Opa-Locka gang.

Gangs are not merely a problem in dangerous or low-income neighborhoods. More often than not the crimes they commit are in the more upscale parts of town. Which is why fighting the gangs – and the violence that comes with them – should be important to everyone.

A short time after the stolen car arrest is made other members of the later gang unit conduct a traffic stop of known gang members.

“We’re just introducing ourselves to the community,” Almaguer said with a wry smile.

There are at least three separate gang wars taking place on the north end among rival gangs. Tensions are running high on this night and  one of the things Almaguer on his officers is looking to do is make their presence felt, hoping it will allow things to cool down.

During this traffic stop, police find a handgun and some powder cocaine inside the car. Almaguer says the gangs have learned how to structure their crews so that at least one of them can be legally armed.

One member of a crew will have a concealed weapons permit, allowing them to be armed.

In Florida, anyone can get a gun permit as long as they have not been convicted of a crime. In some cases, Almaguer claimed, individuals may have multiple of arrests, but they get to keep their gun permit until they have an actual conviction.

So you end up with a situation where one guy holds the gun, another guy holds the dope, and a third guy drives.

“And there is nothing you can do about it because [the guy with the gun] has no convictions,” Almaguer said. “They’ve figured out the system and still have a firearm on them.”

The traffic stop ends with the guy holding the cocaine going to jail while the man with the concealed weapons permit was given back his gun and let go.

No one in the unit thinks they’ll eradicate the gangs, this is about trying to manage and control the violence.

Two nights earlier, a drive by shooting in Miami Gardens killed two people. Worried retaliation was imminent, the task force made a point of cruising the area where the gangs were known to stay.

Driving past the house of one of the victims, a Miami Gardens task force officer spotted a group of men, including one brandishing a handgun. The officer chased him over a fence, tearing up his knee in the process. The bad guy got away — but not before dropping his gun in the scuffle.
Once again units flood the area.

“We got a guy running around here with a gun, you might want to go inside,” Almaguer shouted to residents. “I said we’ve got a guy running around here holding a gun so you might want to go inside.”

One of Almaguer’s officers walked up to him.

“This is where our homicide occurred, right around the corner,” the detective offered. “It’s going to be the same gang.”

“Okay,” Almaguer said with a nod.

Checking the crowd, the police find one of the men also carrying a gun. But he has a concealed weapons permit. They find another individual with a pocket full of bullets. He’ll go to jail tonight because he was on probation.

Arthur Rolle came out to see he commotion. He said he had just come from his cousin’s funeral. “He got shot,” Rolle explained. “Somebody set him up, supposedly what the word on the street is.”

Rolle said he has gone to more funerals than he can count.

“I’m tired of going to funerals,” he said. “Like I told you, I’m tired man, its other things that our young adults could do. Back in the day we use to fight but now we got a bunch of cowards. Everyone wants to grab a gun.”

This night ends when they find their suspect hiding in the house where one of the victims lived.

“Fabulous night, huh,” Almaguer said to anyone who would listen. “Fantastic police work going on around here.”

As everyone prepares to leave, the man with a concealed weapons permit wants his gun back.

“When do I get my gun?” he asked one of the task force officers.

The detective said he needed to check on the status of his permit with the state and wouldn’t be able to do that until morning. In the meantime, the officer said, he was holding on to the man’s gun and his permit.

For this night anyway, this gun was going to stay quiet.

The night’s accomplishments may seem modest – a couple of handguns seized, a dozen people arrested. The victory came in what didn’t happen — on this night at least, there were no shootings in the north end.
If it seems that fighting the gangs is like trying to clear a beach by removing one grain of sand at a time, you’d be right. And the victories can be fleeting. The night after the gang unit conducted their sweep, 14 people were shot outside a funeral home when rival gangs showed up to pay their respects.

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