Nationwide sweep nets hundreds of suspected foreign gang members

Immigration agency works with local officers against violent criminals

August 02, 2005|By Nicole Gaouette | Nicole Gaouette,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Law-enforcement authorities arrested 582 alleged gang members and associates, most of whom could be deported for immigration violations, in a two-week period last month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.

"Many gang members come to this country from overseas, or from other parts of the North and South American continent, which means that they are subject to our immigration laws," Chertoff told a news conference at the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. "When they violate those laws, we can take action against them."

He said ICE had made 1,057 arrests since February, when the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, announced its anti-gang initiative. Of those, Chertoff estimated, 930 to 950 were of illegal immigrants who, he said, "are subject to being removed."

In addition, he said, criminal charges either have been or are expected to be filed against about 230 of those arrested. Initially, authorities focused on Mara Salvatrucha, a violent gang commonly known as MS-13, which is rooted in Central America but has branches from Los Angeles to the Washington, D.C., area. About half the arrests were of MS-13 members, Chertoff said.

ICE expanded the program in May to target other gangs, including Border Brothers and Latin Kings. "We have arrested members of over 80 different gangs," Chertoff said.

The ICE initiative, Operation Community Shield, reflects the way concerns about border security and immigration are refocusing federal and state anti-gang operations, officials said.

The involvement of gangs in immigrant smuggling, gangs' sophisticated ability to produce fake Social Security cards and drivers' licenses, and their high foreign-born membership are leading law-enforcement authorities and Congress to place renewed emphasis on immigration law as a tool for combating gangs and on anti-gang measures as a way to fight immigration fraud.

Marcy Foreman, the director of ICE's Office of Investigations, said the anti-gang initiative involved extensive use of law-enforcement databases.

ICE offices across the United States contacted state and local law-enforcement agencies to identify the most pressing local gang threats. Suspects' names and potential target information were vetted by ICE's Law Enforcement Support Center in Vermont and then run through several databanks.

The most recent arrests, from July 16 to July 28, took place not only in urban areas on both coasts but in cities of the Midwest and South, reflecting the nationwide presence of gangs and recent patterns of immigration.

Suspects were arrested in, among other places, Sioux City, Iowa; St. Paul, Minn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Charlotte, N.C. Boston led the country with 61 arrests.

Authorities in California made 57 arrests, including 18 in San Diego and 26 in Los Angeles, ICE officials said in written statements released to coincide with the news conference.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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