Monday, March 28, 2005

The notorious crime syndicate Mara Salvatrucha is threatening Arizona’s Project Minuteman and reportedly plans to teach it “a lesson” once the Minutemen begin fanning out along Arizona’s border regions this weekend. This probably was not the bedfellow that President Bush, the U.S. Border Patrol and the American Civil Liberties Union were counting on when they began criticizing the civilian border-surveillance group in recent weeks. But the president, law enforcement officers and activist groups have unintentionally ended up on the same side of the issue as a violent criminal gang targeted by coordinated raids just two weeks ago.

It is not hard to see why Mara Salvatrucha prefers the border status quo. The gang stems from a town in El Salvador named La Mara and salvatruchas means guerrillas. The gang grew from Salvadoran refugees in California in the 1980s into one of the largest criminal syndicates in North America, with as many as 20,000 members in the United States and branches throughout Mexico, Central America and Canada. Mara Salvatrucha is among the most successful smugglers of drugs, weapons and people across the U.S.-Mexico border.

It’s ruthless, too: When federal authorities arrested more than 100 gang members two weeks ago in Operation Community Shield — spanning New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore Miami, Dallas and elsewhere — more than half of the suspects had prior arrests or convictions for murder, assault, arson, weapons offenses or charges of drug possession. Mara Salvatrucha has reportedly issued “green lights” to kill police officers in Virginia and Maryland. Such a criminal enterprise — which, we point out, is the largest criminal syndicate in the Washington area — benefits greatly from lax border security and under-funding of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Thus, it is clear that Project Minuteman threatens to complicate things for its smuggling and law-breaking operations. Project Minuteman’s 1,000 or more observers will likely be able to spot the gangsters as they attempt to cross into Arizona. They will be able to report on suspected criminal activity involving illegal border-crossings and point the Border Patrol toward the worst offenses. Some of the Minutemen with valid licenses will be armed. The Minutemen have been instructed to holster their weapons and not to confront any suspected lawbreakers. Their only purpose is to spot offenders and report them to the Border Patrol.

But Mara Salvatrucha may well do its best to force them to react otherwise, given the stakes for a criminal enterprise like Mara Salvatrucha and its violent record inside the United States.

Two key lessons here are that criminal enterprises benefit from lax enforcement and that ordinary citizens protest when the federal government fails them.

That hasn’t been the refrain thus far. In fact, critics of the Minutemen have mostly avoided talking about groups like Mara Salvatrucha and have instead distorted the facts to accuse Project Minuteman of breaking the law. Mr. Bush was wrong last week to call the Minutemen “vigilantes.” The Minutemen are not a lynch mob.

Mexican President Vicente Fox has played the xenophobia card by referring to the Minutemen as “migrant-hunting groups.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona erroneously stated the Minutemen will “attempt to enforce federal immigration law.” In fact, the Minutemen have repeatedly stated they are neither hunters nor law enforcers, and that duly constituted government authorities are the only rightful enforcers of the law.

Project Minuteman still has both public opinion and the law firmly on its side. Public-opinion data on illegal immigration regularly shows strong support for tougher laws on, and tougher enforcement of, illegal immigration. If only Mr. Bush and Congress would address that agenda.

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