Katrina's Latest Casualty

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Crime may be down in New Orleans, but many of the city's bad guys seem to be turning up in Houston, which finds itself caught in the cross hairs of an apparent gang war between Hurricane Katrina evacuees from two rival housing projects. On Friday, Houston's newly formed Gang Murder Squad announced the arrest of eight men from New Orleans suspected in 11 murders in the Houston area over the past three months. "These guys are hooking up with friends and old rivalries are beginning again," Sgt. Brian Harris, a Gang Murder Squad investigator and the top detective on the case, told TIME. Unlike gangs in Houston, which are usually affiliated with the Bloods and the Crips and deal in crack, the New Orleans groups are strictly based on local fault lines, formed around housing projects, and deal mostly in heroin, he said.

The Houston Police Department has acknowledged in recent weeks that a surge in violent crime is directly attributable to the criminal element that evacuated New Orleans after the hurricane. Murders in Houston, which took in an estimated 150,000 evacuees from New Orleans, shot up by nearly 25% last year and are already up 50% in January from the year before. In Sacramento, California police captured a 20-year-old New Orleans native accused of gunning down two other evacuees in a Houston apartment complex. Other states are reporting similar problems. Three Katrina evacuees from New Orleans were accused earlier this month of gunning down and killing two men outside a music hall in Oklahoma City. Outside Atlanta this week, another Katrina evacuee—rapper Jerome "Slim Rome" Spears—killed his girlfriend and wounded her son before committing suicide, according to police.

When the Gang Murder Squad began investigating a series of Houston-area shootings starting in November, detectives quickly discovered a tie among the victims and suspects. Police said the same nicknames and the same vehicles kept popping up in various attacks. "Of 23 Katrina-related homicides in Houston, we linked nine to just two groups from New Orleans—the 3'n'G and the Dooney boys," Harris told TIME. The Dooney boys, who come from the Magnolia Projects just west of downtown New Orleans, home of the slain rapper Soulja Slim, are old rivals of the 3'n'G (named for the intersection of Third and Galvez). "This wasn't a Houston thing," says Harris. "You see a spike in homicides in New Orleans in July and August, then the hurricane comes and they are displaced to Houston and elsewhere."

September and October were relatively quiet while the evacuees reconnected with family and friends. But as they got FEMA money, settled in and began to acquire cars, they started moving around Houston."By November, the Houston nightclubs were having New Orleans nights," says Harris, when the groups would sometimes spot old rivals in the parking lots of clubs. Often, Harris says, "These shootings were dope deals gone bad." The shooters were heavily armed with everything from pistols and shotguns to AK-47s, and three suspects remain at large.

Violent crime in New Orleans was virtually non-existent after Hurricane Katrina last fall. The police chief even joked that the city felt like the fictional Mayberry. But there are signs that the city's notorious violence has started to return. Three people were shot and wounded in mid-January during a "second line" parade as social clubs marched in support of New Orleans' rebuilding effort. Crime has also been a major issue during discussions of how to rebuild the city's poorest—and often most crime-ridden—neighborhoods. A new study from Brown University concludes that up to 80% of the city's black population might not return to New Orleans. "I'm sympathetic to those who are dispersed, but not to the criminal element," says shipyard builder Donald "Boysie" Bollinger, who sits on both the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission and the state's Louisiana Recovery Authority. "We should not try to bring back a society that breeds crime." Good news for New Orleans, but apparently not for Houston.