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.