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Store owners disagree on gangs

One says he hasn't had problems. The other says it's a constant worry. The sheriff also thinks there is trouble and vows a fight.

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published February 4, 2005


Muhammed Hijaz wasn't fazed by the news that undercover detectives had bought drugs from suspected gang members outside his grocery store.

In his 14 years as owner of Dover Mercado on Sydney Dover Road, Hijaz said he has never had a serious problem with gangs.

His store has been burglarized twice, but he doesn't believe gangs were responsible. The bullet holes in the Plexiglas doors, he said, have been there since he took over the store.

The police are exaggerating, Hijaz said. "These aren't gangs. California has gangs."

Hijaz was reacting to the Jan. 19 announcement that authorities had arrested 42 people on charges ranging from narcotics trafficking and illegal firearm sales to attempted murder.

Sheriff David Gee said the arrests were part of a crackdown on illegal gangs that began in late October after a spate of drive-by shootings in Plant City and Dover.

Since then, it seems that for every local skeptic, like Hijaz, there is someone like Mike Abdel, who believes gangs are a growing threat.

Abdel owns Kwik Pak Food Mart, a gas station and convenience store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, not far from Hijaz's grocery market. Abdel's store is awash with graffiti. Three times he has painted over it, he said, and each time the Dover Locos and Sur 13 have returned to spray paint the walls.

Abdel said he is worried that tourists en route to this year's State Fair or Strawberry Festival will be too scared by the graffiti to shop or pump gas at his store.

The graffiti and fights between rival gang members outside his store have gotten so bad in the past three years, he said, that he no longer calls the police for fear gangs will retaliate against his store or his employees. He has been in business since the early '90s.

"This is the worst it's ever been," he said. "I'm glad someone is finally doing something about it."

To stamp out gangs from eastern Hillsborough, Sheriff Gee plans to have in each district a habitual offender unit, whose job it will be to monitor suspected gang members with multiple arrests. It is not clear yet how many officers will be part of the unit.

Right now, the Gang Suppression Unit has at least one officer in each of the county's four districts. The officers work mostly with at-risk teens and their families and on educating the public about how to spot and combat gang activity.

Gee said he will focus the county's law enforcement resources in the Dover area, where gangs are deeply entrenched.

Gee said he would pursue life sentences for gang members who are career criminals.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 661-2441.

[Last modified February 3, 2005, 10:00:09]


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