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Gangs continue to grow, cause problems in central Florida

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Right now, there are more gangs in Florida than ever before, with nearly 400 in central Florida alone, according to the latest state study.

Channel 9's Tim Barber hit the streets to learn more about the gangs and asked investigators what they're doing to lock members up.

A 14-year old central Florida girl was asleep when rival gangs opened fire on each other, shattering her window. Channel 9 is not identifying the girl, who said she's afraid the gangs could punish her for talking.

"I thought it was a nightmare," the girl said, saying she hears gunshots every week.

Gangs are not a new threat, but the most recent state study shows the problem is getting worse.

In 1991, there were 160 gangs in Florida, but by 2007 the number jumped to more than 1,500 with more than 65,000 members or associates, which is roughly the population of Daytona Beach.

Twenty-one percent of the gang members who get locked up are responsible for burglaries, but nearly half are in for violent crimes, according to Channel 9's Tim Barber.

Over the summer, Orlando police said the violent Haitian gang Zoe Pound robbed an apartment and held the family at gunpoint.

A clip from the show "Gangland" describes Zoe Pound as "proud of their Haitian heritage, but their cruelty has no limits. They'll torture your loved ones to try to make the parents talk."

Two months ago, Skywitness 9 HD was above a bust in Orange County where nine suspected members were detained. Two were arrested for having drugs and ammunition.

University of Central Florida sociology professor Dr. Jay Corzine doesn't think the state's numbers give a clear picture of the problem, because gangs are tough to study.

"Frankly, there is no way to tell," said Corzine. "For the most part gang members try to fly under the radar especially if they are actively involved in crime so they are not volunteering the information."

Gangs are on the rise because experts believe some members move to central Florida from bigger cities. Plus, law enforcement only recently started getting big money to combat the issue, and the state has only recently starting keeping better track of them.

Barber called several law enforcement agencies to ask what they're doing to tackle the problem, but all declined because to talk, saying they could give away their tactics. The good news is they believe local gangs tend to be less territorial and less violent than gangs in bigger cities.

But the gangs are still involved in burglaries, car thefts and drugs, and sometimes those crimes do erupt into violence, authorities said.

It's too hard to figure out how much money law enforcement spends fighting gangs, but the Department of Corrections said members cost tax payers more than $132 million each year to lock them up.