Federal law enforcement authorities have coupled multi-agency task forces with strategies that once focused on Mafia-era crime syndicates to target national and international gangs, many of which have brought warfare to the nation's cities.
With a propensity for indiscriminate violence, intimidation and coercion, some of the gangs are considered security threats. One of the largest is Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, with an FBI estimate of 10,000 members in 42 states, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District.
An FBI threat assessment issued in January said MS-13 uses firearms, machetes and blunt objects to intimidate rival gangs, law enforcement officers and the public. Other violent gangs from California to New York include Surenos 13, the 18th Street Gang, the Latin Kings, the Bloods, the Crips and Vatos Locos.
Federal officials say these gangs have one thing in common: They commit violent crimes in the name of the gang and for shared profit.
For the first time, analysts, agents and prosecutors from various government agencies will work together to try to lower the rate of gang crimes, which include homicides, drug smuggling, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, kidnappings and carjackings.
Three task forces will develop cases using federal laws to prosecute gang-related crimes.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) was enacted in 1970 to fight the Mafia, allowing prosecutors to target "not just individual members, but leaders of the organization," said U.S. Attorney Rod. J. Rosenstein in Maryland, where the law has been used against reputed members of MS-13.
The task forces hope to show that the purpose of the gang's racketeering enterprise is to preserve and protect its power, territory and profits through violent assault, killings, threats of violence and intimidation.
Using RICO, Mr. Rosenstein said, "you can have a broader impact on the gang, putting them out of business at least temporarily and, hopefully, longer."
The task forces involved are the Gang Squad, which prosecutes national and international gang members; the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC), which analyzes patterns and trends; and the National Gang Targeting, Enforcement & Coordination Center (GangTECC), which develops cases for prosecutors.
A priority will be gang-related killings, which declined during the late 1990s but spiked, ironically, to 911 deaths in the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - a 57 percent increase over the juvenile gang-related homicide rate in 1999. The killings hit a high-water mark in 2002, but federal figures show the numbers are rising again.
The rates of gang violence have risen as federal resources have been moved to fight the war on terrorism, said Kevin Carwile, chief of the Justice Department's Gang Squad.
In response to the increased activity, Congress in 2004 authorized additional funding and the Justice Department in 2005 organized a strategy to disrupt and dismantle the gangs by setting up three federal task forces using new strategies.
A Northern Virginia office houses NGIC and GangTECC, which include members from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Bureau of Prisons; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the U.S. Marshals Service; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Defense Department; the State Department; and the National Drug Intelligence Center.
In this unprecedented collective outpost, the agencies share information in an attempt to prevent gangs from becoming further ingrained in American life.
"Our objective is not simply to disrupt gangs; it's to dismantle them," said Adam W. Cohen, director of GangTECC.
The FBI has identified 30,000 violent street, motorcycle and prison gangs with about 800,000 members nationwide. Many of the gangs are sophisticated and well-organized, the FBI said, using violence to control neighborhoods and make money through illegal activities.
Congress authorized $10 million to establish NGIC. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales created GangTECC, and the Justice Department set up the Gang Squad.
"It's really a mishmash, and it's worked out really well," said NGIC program director Michael B. Brunton. "Before it was every agency did their own gang investigations. That was fine ... but it wasn't cohesive."
NGIC develops patterns by analyzing gang tattoos, colors, codes, hand signs and habits. It sends that information to state and local agencies and task force partners. GangTECC uses the data to help field agents develop strategies.
"Much of the nation's gang problem is very neighborhood-based," Mr. Cohen said. "So we have to begin looking at linkages, crossovers, connections and commonalities."
He said gangs in different cities might share names, colors or symbols, but not operations.
For law enforcement groups to "attack these as organizations, there really has to be some outside-of-the-box thinking," Mr. Cohen said.
The criminal cases go to the Gang Squad prosecutors.
State and local authorities are responsible for gangs that confine themselves to specific cities, but the task forces take on gangs with a regional, national or international scope, such as MS-13.
Mr. Cohen said many of the gang leaders can still direct criminal activity from prison and that GangTECC uses data on imprisoned gang members to apprehend those who commit crimes on the street.
NGIC and GangTECC can help street agents identify where gangs obtain weapons and drugs, and provide information quickly to local and state officials.
In one case, Mr. Brunton said, a Florida school security officer who found the coded notebook of a gang suspect sent it to NGIC. Within 12 hours, the notebook had been decoded and identified as a hit list in a Columbine-type shooting plot, he said.
Mr. Carwile said the RICO strategy is designed to guarantee that no one gang can become "that entrenched or that sophisticated again."
He said, "Our mission is to attack the most organized gangs, so we're going to have to use the same tools we used against organized crime syndicates."