A study released yesterday says that news organizations and law-enforcement officials have sensationalized the threat posed by Hispanic gangs in the District, Maryland and Virginia by portraying them as arms of a large, tightly knit international organization.
The report, released by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a District-based nonprofit that promotes civil rights in Latin America, says local Hispanic gangs are imitations of their Latin American counterparts that do not operate within a hierarchical structure.
“Reports have been done on speculation,” said Kristel Mucio, a spokeswoman for WOLA. “They may be imitating these gangs, but they are not connected.”
The study, conducted by the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, surveyed gang intervention strategies in the District, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Geoff Thale, a researcher on the project, said the misconception that local gangs had international ties was the result of a post-September 11 mentality has affected law-enforcement officials’ understanding of Hispanic gangs.
“Less on the level of individual cops and more on the level of how law enforcement analyzes policy, there’s been some hypersensitivity that’s contributed to and exaggerated understanding of gangs,” Mr. Thale said. “I think there’s a broad temptation to describe any problem they’re working on as a terrorism problem because that’s how you get the money.”
Some local law-enforcement officials disagreed with the study and said their intelligence indicates communications between local gangs and their Latin American counterparts.
“The intelligence we have shows that they do,” said Montgomery County Police Detective Rob Musser.
Bill Reid, special agent in charge of the Washington field office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said targeting gang activity is crucial in deporting illegal aliens because gang members can be detained for criminal charges while they are being processed for deportation.
“Even if you can’t get them on a criminal charge, we can apprehend them, detain them and put them in deportation proceedings,” Mr. Reid said.
ICE’s Washington field office conducted a sting operation this week that netted 35 illegal aliens. Two of the persons arrested were members of an El Salvadoran gang, Mr. Reid said.
Mr. Reid could not say how closely foreign and local gangs are connected.
The study recommends law-enforcement agencies use a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention and enforcement efforts. Researchers said zero-tolerance policies don’t work and have even caused gang members in Latin American countries to relocate, thus spreading the problem.
The study also said aggressive deportation policy may keep immigrants from helping police because they fear being deported.
The report was released less than a week after a 19-year-old Hyattsville man pleaded guilty to charges related to racketeering, which involved contact with fellow MS-13 gang members in Los Angeles.