HOUSTON - The evidence is clear in many Houston neighborhoods -- graffiti spray painted on walls, buildings and street signs showing where a gang has carved out its territory. Thousands of gang members are peppered throughout the city and are responsible for thousands of crimes every year.
According to the Houston Police Department, there have been more than 25,000 gang-related crimes committed in the city over the last five years. Local 2 Investigates analyzed HPD's database of gang-related crimes and found no boundaries as to what gang members are willing to do to make money.
"Whatever pays, whatever pays," said an admitted gang member who spoke to Local 2 Investigates. "Robbing, killing, it's all the same, you know, kicking down doors."
"They commit virtually every type of crime," said HPD Capt. Dale Brown, head of the department's gang division. "Our No. 1 concern is gang violence."
Brown added drugs are still the No. 1 money maker for gangs.
"They essentially have taken over the drug trade," said Brown. "The wholesale distribution and the retail sale is pretty much controlled by gangs."
HPD officials estimate there are more than 200 gangs at work in the Houston and surrounding areas. Reports complied by the Texas Department of Public Safety and U.S. Department of Justice estimate the Houston region's total gang population at around 10,000 members.
Brown points out that number may be low.
"Our limitation is how many we can document," said Brown. "We know that our documentation does not represent the total number of gang members in Houston."
Brown had the same comment when asked about the more than 25,000 gang-related crimes documented by HPD over the last five years.
"Do we believe there's more gang crime than that? The answer is yes," said Brown.
Brown said this is why more and more officers and investigators are being trained to spot and document gang members. Pictures, tattoos, street names and any other information officers can glean from talking to known or suspected gang members are entered into a massive database that is accessed by several local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. This database not only helps police chart Houston's gang population, but it also charts where gang-related crimes are occurring. Brown said knowing whether a crime is gang-related is also crucial to stopping violence from escalating.
"You have one incident that may lead to another incident, then you get into retaliation," Brown said.
Brown added when officers begin to see an uptick in violence in certain parts of the city, the area is blanketed by officers.
"When you see gang conflict and gang violence, you will see a very strong response from the Houston Police Department," said Brown.
However, gang members are becoming more reluctant to brag about their affiliation publicly. HPD Lieutenant Stephen Casko said many gang members realize the more open they are about being in gang the more scrutiny they'll face from police. Casko is with HPD's Crime Reduction Unit, which is part of the gang division.
"What's that all for?" Casko asked a man who clearly had gang-related tattoos on his arms and neck.
"Uh, just started drawing on myself," the man replied.
Another man with what appeared to be gang-related tattoos sarcastically replied to Casko's questions, "What, you can't get tatted up?"
"He's been schooled. He knows not to talk," Casko said.
"That's how you get identified -- easily, easily identified," said an admitted gang member. "Mark of the beast."
According to HPD records, neighborhoods off of Highway 59 in southwest Houston are experiencing some of the highest levels of gang-related crimes in the city.
"I'm always looking out my window, making sure my doors are locked," said Michael Fontenot, who lives in an apartment complex near Renwick and Bissonnet. "I try not to talk to strangers."
"I come home at night on the bus. I make sure he steps out and I call him so he's outside watching out for me because you never know what can happen," said Perla Lopez, who lives in the same complex with Fontenot.
Few in these neighborhoods would speak with Local 2 Investigates about gang problems. Most residents waved off our cameras and said they 'didn't want to start any trouble.'
The admitted gang member who spoke with Local 2 also lives in a neighborhood off Corporate Drive near Bissonnet.
"It's something that's never going to go away. It's crazy, but it's never going to go away," the admitted gang member said. "People really playing for keeps."
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.