A law enforcement collaboration with ICE melts the gang problem in Haines City.

Four felons on probation in Haines City got arrested last week as part of an operation called Project Nefarious. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

HAINES CITY — It was dubbed “Project Nefarious,” and it was an attempt to target known gang members in the Haines City area, as well as people who had violated the terms of their probation or parole.
It was also, uniquely enough, an effort that brought together law enforcement officials at four separate levels: local, county, state and federal.
“It was an attempt to go out and check any outstanding warrants we might have had with people who had gang affiliations,” said Scott Wilder, director of communication for the Polk County Sheriff’s office. “We were working with the Department of Corrections’ probation officers, helping them do probation checks.”
On April 17, Florida Department of Corrections’ probation and parole officers teamed up with agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and with local law enforcement officials. Law enforcement from Florida was assisting a national Homeland Security initiative designed to identify, arrest and prosecute gang members and those associated with human smuggling and trafficking, including immigrants brought into this country illegally for criminal behavior such as drug dealing and prostitution.
The goal was to fight the threats posed by street gangs that work for international human smuggling and trafficking organizations across the globe. To make this law enforcement effort a success, Homeland Security reached out to state and local agencies, including DOC, the Polk County Sheriff’s office, the Haines City Police Department, and Haines City probation and parole officers.
“It was basically an attempt by the federal Homeland Security folks, which included ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, to target anyone who was an active member or former member of a gang,” Wilder said. “It was all done in an effort to see if there are criminal gang members out there, and we were basically keeping track of them.”
Part of it was targeting gang members who already had a criminal record and were on parole or probation, and still involved in some illegal behavior, said Sgt. Herb Hernandez of the Haines City Police Department.
“It was through ICE, and they were looking on the gang side of it,” he said. “We got together and we identified some of the gang member who were on probation, and we were out to make contact with them and do probation checks. Some of these guys, even though they were on probation, the terms of it said they have no contact with any criminal element, and they were still hanging out with them.”
“In our northeast division, we had a number of our deputies working with those probation and parole officers,” Wilder noted. “We were asked to assist in the operation, and we did.”
The operation resulted in four arrests for probation violations, Hernandez said, including one man who had been drinking alcohol, which was prohibited under the terms of his probation, since he had been charged with driving under the influence.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” Hernanez said of this operation targeting gang members on probation. “The ICE guys made contact with DOC, and they wanted to make contact with known gang members and see how they got into this country, to see if they were here legally or illegally. When we team up together like that, we have all our positions covered. It was a very effective team.”
Wilder said these kinds of multi-agency operations are more common than the public might think.
“We do very similar operations, but not necessarily focusing on gangs,” he said. “We do, with the Department of Corrections, warrant round ups all the time, where we have outstanding warrants and concentrate on those and try to bring them in if they’ve been out there evading us. I know ICE has been looking at people who violated immigration issues, who might have been picked up and then missed their court date, so they were looking out for them.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a cabinet department created in response to the Sept. 11 2011 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. The goal of the agency is protecting the United States from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, but while the U.S. Department of Defense covers military actions abroad, Homeland Security put the focus within this nation to prepare for, and prevent, domestic emergencies that include terrorism.
In 2003, Homeland Security also absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service and took over its functions. It now has two separate agencies, ICE or Immigration and Customers Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Homeland Security is the nation’s third largest cabinet department.
Wilder said local law enforcement has worked with Homeland Security agents before, but he added that Project Nefarious had a new goal from past operations.
“This is the first one I can recall where it was specifically focused on criminal gangs,” he said. “The federal government has had a long effort on those involved with the human smuggling and trafficking operations. Often that’s done outside of our country. They bring folks here, mainly from Latin America, involving people in prostitution and drug smuggling.”
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has its own anti-gang unit, but Wilder said it’s important to keep in mind that crime is down in the Haines City area, and that gangs are not considered a major problem in the city.
“We monitor it very closely and we do work with Osceola and Orange counties on this,” Wilder said. “The issue is not necessarily that it’s a gang problem. We have a pretty strong presence of Latin Americans or Latinos in the Haines City/Poinciana area, and where ever you have a large population from both Puerto Rico or Mexico or any other Latin American region, the criminal gangs will come into those areas because they just kind of blend in. So we’re constantly working the gang issues and through the high schools, and we have several people who are investigators and experts in gang issues, and we’ll focus on them.
“But we used to have a bigger problem with the violence that comes out of these criminal gangs,” Wilder said. “In our area, we’ve noticed they have been involved in drug sales, and in some areas, I know they have had a bigger problem in human trafficking where women are brought in for prostitution. But we don’t have a particular – knock on wood – gang crime problem here. Crime is down in that area (Haines City) area for property crimes and violence crimes from 2010 to 2011.”
Hernandez noted that project Nefarious “wasn’t just for Haines City. It was a countrywide project. In some areas, that was more serious and prevalent than others. In Haines City, we look at how gang members use immigrants to bring in their marijuana and other drugs.”
In addition to targeting gang members, Wilder said his office also works with state and federal law enforcement agencies on cyber crimes.
“Another area we see that kind of cooperation is computer-related crimes,” he said. “Both the state and federal people get involved because some of these travelers come from out of state and out of county who get targeted in these undercover operations.”

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