One late August evening, 12-year-old Tequila Forshee was killed in a barrage of bullets while getting her hair braided. She was sitting on the living room floor inside her grandmothers home.
Just before midnight, four boys rode up to the house on bicycles and fired into the pale yellow walls and windows. The Forshee family and police believe the August shooting may have been gang-related. Tequila was not the target; it was her uncle, whos only 16.
Miami Gardens police suspect those responsible for Tequilas slaying are members of a gang; more troubling, they may be as young as 15. Authorities say they see gangs recruiting members from middle schools, even elementary schools.
The presence of these gangs comes as no surprise to the mostly working class residents of Miami-Dades third-largest city, where the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire is known to shatter placid evenings.
Cristal Forshee, 10, Tequilas younger sister, can matter-of-factly recite the names of the gangs in her Miami Gardens neighborhood. She knows which gang wears red bandannas, which one wears black bandannas. I found out from people at school, said the fifth grader.
Even as Miami Gardens police step up their efforts to tame the growing gang activity, city residents say these loosely organized groups at least 14 known gangs of mostly preteen and teenage kids are terrorizing the community.
We are seeing a rise in the kids getting started in this earlier and thats troubling, said Miami Gardens Deputy Police Chief Paul Miller, who declined to disclose the names of the gangs.
The trend mirrors whats happening nationwide, where the number of gangs has increased since 2006, according to the latest National Youth Gang Survey, which tracks gang-related statistics by polling more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies. A Justice Department study found that in recent years, roughly one in five middle and high-school students reported the presence of gang activity in their school.
To fight back, the Miami Gardens police will hire 10 additional police officers to augment their focus on violent crimes. Police also recently installed technology in neighborhoods to alert them when gunshots are fired.
The youth of the perpetrators some not old enough to legally drive and their brazen acts draw a harsh light on a community trying to shake a reputation for violent murders. In the past five years, Miami Gardens has consistently ranked among the top Miami-Dade cities for murders per 100,000 residents.
While overall crime has decreased, the citys murder rate more than doubled since Miami Gardens incorporated in 2003, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
A Fathers Mission
The August tragedy turned Tequilas father into a community activist.
In the weeks after his daughters Disney princess-themed funeral, Forshee vowed to make the neighborhood he grew up in safer for his four surviving children, two girls and two boys, ages 3-14.
Before Tequilas death, Forshee knew about gang members selling drugs in the parks where children play. He would hear about the shootings down the street or the murder around the corner. But he simply didnt want to get involved.
Now, he is speaking out. At anti-violence walks, prayer rallies and town hall meetings, Forshee recounts his bitter loss and urges residents not to follow in his example. Pay attention, he implores.
If we dont look, were going to pay, he said at a recent town hall forum. I paid. I didnt look. It took me losing my child to look and I grew up here in Miami Gardens for 33 years.
Miami Gardens police acknowledges it will take a community partnership to stamp out the five or six gangs they say are the most active of the known gangs operating in the city. Most of the gang-related incidents and shootings are clustered in the Carol City and Norland neighborhoods.
Parents are concerned the gang violence is spilling into the schools.
Kids cant concentrate on schoolwork because theyre worried about whos beefing with who, said Harford Howell, whose son attends a Miami Gardens charter school. Beefing is a slang term for an argument or fight.
A sense of the gang culture can be gleaned through police reports, which often dont include names because those involved as suspects and victims are too young.
In December 2012, two juveniles and known gang members were riding a bicycle at night without a light. One pedaled while the other sat on the handlebars. When police pulled them over, one of the boys ran away, throwing into the bushes a 12-gauge shotgun. The pair were linked to four robberies in the area.
In January, a student was beat up by a group of kids at North Dade Middle School after school, leaving him with a swollen lip and nose. During the attack, the other students shouted the name of their gang.
When police stopped a known gang member in June, he tried to conceal something in his waistband from their view. The weapon: a Glock 17 handgun with an extended 30-round magazine.
In its report, police wrote that the young man had this straightforward explanation for being armed: Someone is trying to kill him.
And during a violent crime detail in August, officers stopped two known gang members driving in a rival gangs neighborhood. An officer noted in the report, Numerous members of this gang have been shot and killed in the immediate area.
The gangs in Miami Gardens are loosely organized by territory and are not the traditional gangs typically seen in cities like Los Angeles, police say.
Shootouts break out over perceived disrespect, Miller said.
I dont like you today and so I see you walking around and I may have a firearm so I decide Im going to shoot you, Miller said.
Miami-Dade Anti-Gang Strategy developer Wayne Rawlins said the gang issue is not exclusive to Miami Gardens. Other cities, including nearby Opa-locka and parts of the City of Miami, are dealing with these same types of hybrid gangs.
Miami Gardens and Opa-locka have serious issues, but they are not as bad as Liberty City where violent crimes and gang-related incidents are also high, he said.
Though not as organized as better known gangs, said Rawlins, gangs in Miami Gardens are violent and can grow powerful within communities if left unchecked.
We see that there are some Miami Gardens residents who are very, very afraid when we knock on the doors where the shootings take place, he said. There was one woman who was just afraid to step out of her door. You do see residents where this has impacted their way of life.
And while elected officials regularly tout the citys overall reduced crime rate in recent years, it all seems overshadowed when tragedies like the slaying of 12-year-old Tequila strike the community.
A family heartbroken , a family disrupted doesnt really care at the end of the day if crime has gone down when its personally affected them in a very tragic way, said deputy chief Miller.
Tequilas father walks around his neighborhood wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his deceased daughters face. The shirt reads, Whos next?
He talks to the kids in the parks and the young men hanging out at neighborhood convenience stores. He wants to tell his story, show his face and his pain. Perhaps he can reach someone, make a difference
We can give them an education all we want to, he said. We can teach them A, B and C and mathematics and everything, but what does it proffer that child when he goes home and has to deal with gangs?