- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Street gangs, particularly MS-13, have become organized criminal enterprises in Central America and threaten to establish similar operations in this country, federal law-enforcement officials said yesterday.

“MS-13 has a very well-entrenched, very well-disciplined clique structure in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras … organized along certain sections for homicide, robbery, kidnapping, extortion, all reporting to the ‘ranflero,’ or the leader,” said Robert Clifford, director of the FBI’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force.

The FBI convened an all-day meeting yesterday with more than 80 officials — including government representatives from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — to discuss the gang problem in the United States and in Central American countries and to share information and solutions.

“There was no doubt at the end of today that the National Gang Task Force, that federal, state and local law enforcement [must] recognize and will address MS-13 as a criminal enterprise” in the United States, Mr. Clifford said. “We all came to the conclusion that we must identify the regional, national and international leadership of MS-13 and attack that.”

Mr. Clifford said no central, national leadership has been identified, but the FBI has “identified members who exercise influence on a regional basis and are well-known in Central America and the United States.”

Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as police officials from Montgomery County, Northern Virginia, Houston and Los Angeles also attended the meeting. Members of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section and its Domestic Security Section also were present.

The meeting was closed to the press, but a hastily arranged conference with Central American officials drew numerous English-speaking and Spanish-speaking reporters.

Julio Godoy, vice minister of security for Guatemala, said MS-13 — or Mara Salvatrucha — and other gangs in his country are engaged in organized crime that is threatening the stability of the country’s democracy.

“The problem in our country is a lot worse than I think the United States realizes,” he said.

Mr. Godoy also said his government has no reliable intelligence to estimate how many gang members are in Guatemala, which has a population of nearly 15 million. He thinks there are at least 20,000 gang members in the country, but added that the number could be as high as 150,000.

Police in El Salvador have more precise numbers.

The country has roughly 11,500 gang members, including about 4,000 in prison, said Douglas Omar Garcia Fuenes, assistant director of investigations for El Salvador’s police force.

Since the U.S. government began to deport gang members to Central America, MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang have proliferated in Central America to the point where the heads of state in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have declared war on the gangs.

Although FBI officials say they will treat MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang as organized criminal enterprises, ATF officials say they will not, though they are working with the FBI on the issue.

“In our investigations, we have not seen any strong evidence of any national leadership or any formal structure that would span across the country, like organized crime,” said Michael Bouchard, ATF’s assistant director for field operations.

In addition, an 18-month undercover investigation by ATF agents found heavy gang activity in the Washington area, but no regional leadership or criminal conspiracy.

“I don’t think it’s as organized as some people may think it is,” Richard Zayas, an ATF undercover agent, told The Washington Times. “For the most part, guys were just trying to make a profit and doing their own thing, street thugs.”

During his 18 months of police work, the 16-year ATF veteran bought guns and drugs from more than two dozen gang members to see whether MS-13’s presence in the area rose to the level of a crime ring.

His investigation, which ended in June after an additional year of interviews with arrested gang members, resulted in 27 arrests and convictions.

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