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Project Wildfire bust clears 1,000 suspected gang members off streets (+video)

The sweeping operation Project Wildfire targeted 239 gangs in 282 cities around the United States. Officials hail the effort as one of the largest and most successful gang busts in recent history.

Federal agents arrested almost 1,000 suspected gang members across the United States during a sweeping operation that took place throughout March and February, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) announced Wednesday.

The six-week campaign, known as Project Wildfire, targeted 239 gangs in 282 cities. The surge was one of the largest and most successful nationwide efforts to crack down on gang related activities, officials say. However, some experts have cautioned that large-scale gang busts may only be short-term solutions and that concerted efforts are needed to discourage recruitment of new gang members.

Project Wildfire is "one of the largest operations we’ve ever conducted and it’s the most successful operation we’ve conducted. The level of cooperation is typical, but the level of success is the direct result of the level of cooperation between state and local partners,” says Mike Prado, acting deputy assistant director of transnational crime and public safety in ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations.

According to data from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the number of gangs and gang members has risen in recent decades. The most recent study from 2012 estimates that there are more than 30,000 gangs in the United States, a 15 percent increase since 2006 and the highest annual estimate since 1996. 

The HSI National Gang Unit, whose special agents collaborated with 215 state, local, and federal law enforcement partners, launched Project Wildfire to address the increase in gang activity.

But some pundits say police crackdowns are only half the battle. In an article published by the Los Angeles Times after a wave of gang violence in 2007, experts pointed out that while police efforts helped solve problems in the short-term, they did not stop gang activity from cropping back up in the future. To solve the problem, it’s important to address the issues that cause young people to get involved with gang activities in the first place.

“Gangs would not exist if they did not satisfy, albeit in very anti-social and destructive ways, desperate needs young people have for protection, a sense of empowerment and group membership, mentoring and employment. It is not just any youths who are most at risk – it is those marginalized by discrimination based on class, race and nationality,” Douglas Perkins, who has studied youth violence, told The Tennessean in 2010.

Mr. Prado says that he believes law enforcement surges are an effective way to reduce gang related activity.

“The issue of criminal street gangs is an ongoing problem and one we will continue to make a top priority within HSI. Successful operations will have a discernible impact and improve the quality of life in these communities. We want to keep these gang members on their heels and constantly looking over their shoulder, which distracts them from engaging in criminal activity,” he says.

Other officials have also touted this type of joint effort as the best way to prevent gang violence and protect the country.

“This is where grass-roots law enforcement starts. This is how we get a baseline read of what’s happening.... It all builds on itself,” Homeland Security's Greg Mandoli told Fox News.

Of the 1,207 individuals arrested during Project Wildfire, 976 were gang members and associates, law enforcement officials said. The remaining 231 individuals were arrested on federal and/or state criminal violations and administrative immigration violations. The majority of the alleged gang members arrested, 913 of the 976, were charged with criminal offenses, including 19 suspected of murder and 15 suspected of rape or sexual assault.

Most of the individuals arrested were affiliated with the Sureños, Norteños, Bloods, and Crips gangs, according to the statement released by ICE. Others were affiliated with Puerto Rican-based gangs and several prison gangs.

The majority of those arrested were US citizens, but ICE said 199 foreign nationals were arrested.

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