HOUSTON — Eight gang members who moved here from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have been arrested as suspects in 11 slayings, police said Friday.
The arrests follow a recent surge in violence in the Houston area, which police attribute partly to Katrina evacuees. A gang unit formed two weeks ago to investigate the crime wave has linked the killings to rival New Orleans gang members trying to get a foothold in Houston.
"They basically just took their battles from New Orleans to here," Houston police spokesman John Cannon said. "In some cases, they even relocated to the same apartment complex" as other gang members, Cannon said.
The suspects are members of gangs identified with two New Orleans public housing projects, police Sgt. Brian Harris said. The gangs -- known as the Dooneys and 3NG -- had been selling drugs and doing "whatever they needed to do to make money: rob, steal or kill," said Harris, a member of the gang squad.
In the chaos that followed Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, gang members lost touch with one another. But they regrouped and, by the end of October, began to reestablish their drug trade, officials said.
"By the time November rolls around, they have vehicles and are congregating at similar night clubs," Harris said. "Maybe there's a 'New Orleans night' and people from different projects are at the same club. That rekindles old rivalries that spill out onto the streets."
Many of the 150,000 Katrina evacuees who came here found homes in southwest Houston -- an area jammed with cheap apartment complexes that is a hub of gang activity. "It was already a very shaky balance between gangs," said Charles Rotramel, executive director of Youth Advocates, a nonprofit group that works with at-risk adolescents and teens. "If you add this new element to it, it's reached the tipping point."
But so far, Houston gangs haven't tangled with their New Orleans counterparts, Harris said. "It's New Orleans on New Orleans."
Twenty-three slayings in the Houston area since the hurricane are believed to be related to Katrina evacuees, police said. The gang members in custody in 11 of the killings also were charged with aggravated robbery, kidnapping or weapons possession. Their alleged victims were all from Louisiana.
Three additional gang members wanted in the slayings remain at large.
Police said they were hopeful that, with gang members now scattered among several apartment complexes and unable to terrorize entire housing projects, Katrina evacuees will begin to speak up. "If they see we are putting these guys in jail, that they don't have to live in a state of fear, maybe they can step forward and help us," Harris said.