March 10, 2006 -- A coordinated gang-enforcement operation has resulted in the arrest of 375 gang members in 23 states.
The arrested gang members include many from the notoriously violent MS-13 gang, which has become a top concern of the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The two-week operation, overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was part of a Department of Homeland Security effort called Operation Community Shield, which was launched in February 2005, initially to take down members of MS-13. The effort was expanded in May 2005 to go after all criminal gangs, such as the Latin Kings, 18th Street Gang, Big Time Killers, Asian Dragon Family and the Surenos.
The results of the latest Community Shield effort were announced by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at a press conference in Washington. According to agency officials, more than 260 of the 375 gang members arrested in the past two weeks have criminal records stemming from charges of firearms and drug violations. Chertoff said this was an effort "targeting the worst of the worst."
Immigration and Customs is holding many of the gang members on immigration violations. Those who can be prosecuted are suspected of involvement in such crimes as murder, rape, assaults and weapons trafficking. Many of the gang members are foreign born, are in the United States illegally and are considered extemely violent.
One Feb. 28, Jose Carlos Peralta-Morales, a Surenos gang member, beat an individual's head with an aluminum baseball bat inside a Wal-Mart store. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police arrested him later the same day. Peralta-Morales had a previous criminal record and faces federal criminal charges.
MS-13 has employed machetes in numerous attacks, using them to chop off rival gang members' fingers and hands.
Since Community Shield was set up last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with state and local law enforcement agencies, has arrested more than 2,300 suspected gang members, including 51 gang leaders and 922 members of MS-13. MS-13 is believed to have as many as 10,000 members in the United States, who are mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Although many members of the group are often identified by tattoos bearing "MS-13," U.S. law enforcement agencies have developed extensive fingerprint databases to track members.
The United States has exchanged fingerprint data with El Salvadoran and Central American law enforcement agencies to develop intelligence on MS-13 members.
"Under Community Shield, we'll work to identify and gather intelligence on gang members," Chertoff said.
So far, the United States has about 5,000 known MS-13 members' fingerprints on file, but some government estimates say there are up to 10,000 individuals in the gang.
MS-13, or "Mara Salvatrucha," has spread across the country over the past decade. The gang gained prominence in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and has used extremely violent methods to gain territory.
The expansion of MS-13 shows that gang activity has reached an international level, no longer focused on defending turf in cities. With the expansion across borders, the gangs pose a different kind criminal threat that now includes drug and human smuggling operations.
"Transnational street gangs pose a growing public safety threat to urban and rural communities throughout the United States," said Julie Myers, assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Their violence, sophistication and scope have reached intolerable levels."
The efforts to curb gang violence through Community Shield has had an impact in some cities. Dallas noticed a 20 percent decrease in the murder rate in 2005 as a result of the arrest of almost 150 gang members. Success has also been reported in Charlotte, N.C., where Immigration and Customs agents worked with local police to arrest more than 100 MS-13 members.