- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2016

More than 900 people associated with gangs like MS-13 and the Bloods were arrested across the country as part of a five-week U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-led operation, officials announced Monday.

The operation was meant to target gang members involved in criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and human smuggling, and comes at a time that law enforcement officials in the D.C. area have become concerned about an increasing level of violence in the region they associate with the MS-13 gang.

But gang experts question the degree to which the busts will tamp down on gang-related crime in the long term.

Law enforcement officials arrested a total of 1,133 people and reported that 915 of them were “gang members and associates,” with the majority affiliated with MS-13, the Surenos, the Nortenos, the Bloods and several prison-based gangs, according to a statement from ICE.

ICE officials declined to provide any names of those arrested or to detail the exact charges lodged against each suspect.

Without specific information about those arrested, gang expert Richard Valdemar said it’s tough to say whether such an operation will have success curbing gang crime.

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Such federal sweeps often pick up foot soldiers and other low-level gang members, who are ultimately not the ones calling the shots within the criminal enterprises, said Mr. Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s sergeant who specializes in gang investigations. As a result, he said, they aren’t effective tactics in the long term.

“The sweeps are like band aids, they look good on the 5 o’clock news but they have no effect on the actual gangs,” Mr. Valdemar said.

More successful are operations that charge gang leadership through Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statutes, which can help to disassemble the organizations by ensnaring gang leaders who may not be the ones actually carrying out the most violent crimes, he said.

ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said some of those arrested are being charged as part of RICO investigations but she declined to say how many or where the investigations were centered because they are ongoing.

The majority of the gang members or affiliates — 1,001 people — were charged with criminal offenses ranging from attempted murder to tampering with a witness and narcotics-related charges. The remaining 132 people were arrested administratively for immigration violations.

Some of those who were criminally charged are also immigrants, as ICE officials indicated that 239 of the 1,133 people arrested as part of the operation are foreign nationals.

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Another gang researcher, Alex Alonso of Cal State University, was critical of the sweeps, calling them “rhetoric and propaganda” meant to build support for law enforcement programs and deportation policies.

The operation, dubbed Project Shadowfire, was meant to crack down on gang activity across the country but officials said that enforcement action was most active in the Los Angeles, San Juan, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, and El Paso areas. In the greater Los Angeles area, a total of 185 people were arrested.

A handful of gang arrests were also made in the D.C. region, where local law enforcement have been on the lookout for an uptick in MS-13 activity. In the last year, police in Maryland and Northern Virginia have linked at least eight homicides to MS-13.

The sweeps netted 13 suspects in Northern Virginia, all identified as either members of MS-13 or the 18th Street Gang. Another 16 people were arrested in Maryland, with the majority affiliated with MS-13.

ICE officials declined to provide the names of those arrested locally but were able to provide some information about charges they face.

In Maryland, one person was suspected of rape of a minor, two were wanted for attempted murder and another is accused of tampering with a witness.

“Transnational criminal gang members and their associates not only bring violence to our community, they also deal in human trafficking and drug smuggling,” said Andre R. Watson, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Baltimore. “These organizations find the vulnerable and the weak in our neighborhoods and exploit them for personal gain.”

In Virginia, two of those arrested face narcotics charges, six face firearms charges, three face immigration-related violations, one was charged in a mob assault and another was arrested on a probation violation. All 13 suspects were arrested in either Loudoun, Fairfax or Prince William counties.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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