Raids mark a gain in war on gangs

Arrests may signify new cooperation of federal and local forces.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It is a "story at 11" scene likely to repeat itself more and more in coming years - the videotaped "perp walk" of gang members seized, not by local police, but by the recently formed US Department of Homeland Security. Coming soon to a gang-infested metropolis near you - as it did this week to six American cities - will be "Operation Community Shield."

By most accounts, the nationwide raid of 103 members of the international gang Mara Salvatrucha on March 14 has at least put a small dent in a criminal organization that authorities think represents a growing menace in cities across the country. Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, has quickly moved to the top of federal officials' worry list because of its broad international roots; reputation for brutality; and a focus on cross-border trafficking in guns, drugs, and humans.

The raids also may have represented a breakthrough in federal-local cooperation in the war on street gangs. For years, local law-enforcement officers in many cities have refused to ask suspects they've apprehended about their immigration status. One reason is that local police believe it would jeopardize law-abiding but illegal immigrants from coming forward to inform on their criminal brethren. Thus local police often didn't cooperate as much as they could in federal probes.

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Now, however, that barrier may have been breached, experts say, though many local officials remain wary of reporting too much information. That cooperation, combined with the newfound authority of the Homeland Security Department's new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is likely to lead to more raids. "This whole idea is just in its nascent stages," says Virginia Kice, Western regional communications director for the ICE. "We see our mission as doing everything we can to promote domestic security and any organization that is involved in wholesale human smuggling and trafficking potentially is going to exploit vulnerabilities in our system."

A wider dragnet

Because of its broad mandate, the ICE can also zero in on cross-border gang activity in ways that local law enforcement can't. The new department has better ways to track financial and other illicit activity state to state and country to country, as well as power to detain and deport illegal immigrants. "We can charge gang members in ways that others can't, such as [with] illegal reentry after deportation," says Kevin Kozak, assistant special agent in charge of the ICE's Los Angeles office. "And we have attachés stationed in Central American countries [so] that we can coordinate resources and infrastructure in tracking what they do in their countries of origin."

The target of this week's raid in seven cities - including Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, Miami, Washington, and Newark, N.J. - was focused on a gang that federal authorities say has cells in 33 states and up to 50,000 members in the US and Latin America.

At a recent international conference sponsored by El Salvador, US officials saw first hand the brutality of MS-13 in its native country - pictures of hundreds of slayings, beheadings, and dismembered bodies. El Salvador's president, Ricardo Marduro, made headlines during the conference by saying he could not rule out a connection between Al Qaeda and MS-13. "They are extremely violent and predatory, which is another reason we singled them out as a threat to US public safety," says Mr. Kozak.

Threat overstated?

Some outside observers familiar with gang activity in Los Angeles, considered the American base for MS-13, and the rest of the US, say the raids were warranted, but point out that only a small percentage of the gang is criminally oriented.

"They are a major threat to America and its communities and especially southern California because they are so close to the border," says Najee Ali, a former gang member who had engineered truces between Los Angeles gangs over many years. Mr. Ali says MS-13 brings hundreds across the border each week, many of whom have no skills and are thus beholden to gangs. They engage in illegal activity as part of their payment for getting smuggled in.

The ICE officials estimate the number of MS-13 operatives in the US at 10,000. But some academics say that figure is inflated and believe federal officials are unduly alarming the public. "Most of Mara Salvatrucha are poorer street kids who, like many others, are in the wrong place at the wrong time and have gravitated to gangs as a cultural habit," says Victor Rios, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco, who studies local gangs.

He says only about 5 percent may be hardened criminals dealing in drugs, prostitution, gun-running, and human smuggling. "In order to continue to get funding and support, the government wants to make sure the public knows there is a crisis," says Mr. Rios. "But most of these guys are just kids who are clueless about what the larger criminal element is up to."

Others worry that the raids are part of a larger pattern of US authorities using excessive force in the wake of 9/11. "They seem to be going after all these groups because they can and they want to," says Mark Madow, a former California prison inmate who has written about the hardening effect of prison on nonviolent youth. "It's not so much that they are doing the wrong thing, but I personally think it might be an absurd amount of force," adds Mr. Madow, who writes an alternative-opinion website.

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