McALLEN - When Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. Guerra's strike teams work gang warrant roundups they are assisted by the intelligence from the Texas Anti Gang (TAG) Center Rio Grande Valley. Recently they successfully executed warrants in a colonia but because of sharing of intelligence, federal law enforcement agencies acknowledged high-valued targets and both entities were successful in taking gang members off the streets.
In Hidalgo County there are 78 different gangs: 60 street and 18 prison. For the past year the TAG center has been operating and mining data that helps decrease the number of gang members on the street.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott was at the Texas Transnational Intelligence Center this week to formally open the gang side of the building which has been operating since September 2017. Rapidly the TAG center assisted in the execution of successful missions that for example in November 2017 four Rio Grande Valley Members of the Southwest Cholos were indicted on charges of sex trafficking and drug smuggling. The gang members forced not only women but girls as young as 14 years old into prostitution and sex trade.
The gang operated in Hidalgo and Cameron counties locally and expanded into Mexico and Harris County.
“Gang activity is not unique to the Rio Grande Valley,” Abbott said. “It poses a grave threat to the safety of Texans and the most dangerous are transnational gangs like MS-13 as well as gangs tied to international drug cartels.”
At the formal opening the Governor received information that crime is on a downturn in the Rio Grande Valley. The level of gang activities decrease with the TAG centers. Currently there are TAG centers in Lubbock, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley.
Abbott said in just the year the TAG center in the Rio Grande Valley has been open the number of gang members that have been put behind bars has doubled.
But as Abbott read a list of local headlines from media outlets that proved there are challenges with regard to gang crime. The headlines, as Abbott put it, just scratch the surface of the threat Texans face.
The growing presence of the deadly MS-13 gang.
“Their motto is to Rape, Control and Kill,” he said. “Their goal is strike fear into our citizens and murder innocent people for sport or spite.”
The threat of this magnitude requires a strong and unified response. That is why Texas Anti Gang Centers are critical. The collaborative effort enables law enforcement to share resources and share intelligence to work together to shut down gang operations.
A New Plan
Going forward the goal is to expand and open more TAG centers across Texas. Abbott announced a new plan to keep the community safe from violent crime and gang activity. The plan begins with more TAG centers. Under the plan Texas would establish two new centers, one located in Tyler and another in Waco, as well as provide additional resources to existing centers.
The objective is clear: increase the number of arrests of gang members and felony fugitives, also take illegal weapons, drugs and contraband off the streets, as well as dismantle criminal enterprises.
Abbott also explained gang activity does not stop once criminals are in jail. In fact prisons are major recruiting grounds for major gangs. Organized gang activity often occurs behind bars so more needs to be done to deter criminal activity in prisons. Under Abbott's plan Texas will increase penalties for those who engage in organized criminal activity in prison. Additionally inmates involved in organized crime in prison will lose visitation and outward bound communication privileges.
“The reason for this penalty is that it undercuts their ability to coordinate with gang members on the outside,” Abbott said.
The new plan also adds strategies to reduce human trafficking in Texas.
The goal is to go after all internet sites that provide a gateway to human trafficking. Sites like Craigslist and Back Page have already been used for trafficking sources and other social networking sites are vulnerable to being used by traffickers.
In April, President Donald Trump signed into law the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. Under the new law any internet site that promotes or facilitates prostitution or disregards human trafficking can be liable in legal action brought by a state attorney general.
“To put teeth into this new law I propose providing more fire power to the Texas attorney general by funding more investigators to prosecute online sex trafficking,” Abbott said.
Under the same plan it will also be a crime to knowingly allow properties to be used for stash houses. In addition to criminal penalties the property owner will forfeit the title to their house and it will be transferred to charitable organization that helps to fight human trafficking.
To strengthen the fight against gangs in all criminal activity, Texas must do more to protect law enforcement officers on the front lines of keeping communities safe. To do so, Abbott's plan will provide life-saving tools and technologies.
Last session, Texas authorized more than $23 million for 33,000 rifle resistant vests for law enforcement agencies across the state. The new plan also calls for an additional $10 million so every law enforcement officer in the state who desires a rifle resistant vest will be able to get one.
The year-old TAG center continues to pay dividends for law enforcement. Last week U.S. Border Patrol Agents in the Rio Grande Valley identified eight gang members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street gangs as well as five sexual predators.
Agents assigned to the Falfurrias station apprehended a Salvadoran national near Encino, Texas who was a member of the MS-13. Later that day Weslaco agents apprehended another Salvadoran national near Donna from MS-13.
The list goes on and on, paving the way for the local TAG center proving to be successful.
One thing about opening more TAG centers is all of them are a network to relay information to one another and provide an overall comprehensive approach across Texas.
“From Lubbock all the way down to the Rio Grande Valley,” Abbott said. “Across the entire state, Texas is doing more to address gang activity than any other state in America.”