US: Gangsters without borders

(ISA Intelligence and Consulting, 28/11/2007)


Weeks ahead of the first round of presidential primaries in the United States, for what are already hotly-contested campaigns, immigration remains a top domestic issue. Policies to manage America’s illegal immigrant community range from absorbing members of this growing community through an amnesty to stopping them at the border with virtual fences and armed soldiers. Across this spectrum, however, there is not one candidate that has focused on an important element of the national immigration debate: street gangs.

For over two decades, street gangs in the United States have been a challenge to local law enforcement agencies as many members of well known gangs, such as the Bloods and the Crips, are US citizens. When gang members are not US citizens but illegal immigrants that form part of a transnational criminal network, the problem is significantly complicated. These gangs tend to reside within the sanctuary of immigrant communities, where normally hardworking men and women are subjected to the levels of violence they thought they had left behind in their home countries.

The Mara Salvatrucha street gang (MS-13) formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where a growing El Salvadorian immigrant community was forced to band together to protect itself - an ironic reality given that they fled their war-torn country where Washington supported a proxy war to contain the growth of communism in Central America.

Over time, the founding members of the MS-13 joined the Mexican Mafia prison gang network affiliated with a loosely connected group of gangs that call themselves Sureños. In the early days of its existence, the Mara Salvatrucha agreed to become an enforcement arm for the Mexican Mafia, carrying out some of the dirty work leaders the Mexican Mafia needed to maintain their network's preeminence.

Over time, however, the Mara Salvatrucha expanded its presence to at least 33 US states with some 10,000 members spread across hundreds of US cities and towns.

Criminal conveyor belt

Due to its violent nature, the MS-13 is a top law enforcement target for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has worked closely with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to organize and implement nationwide sting operations.

These operations combine national-level investigations of violent crime with a nationwide database of illegal immigrants. It is a cooperative agreement that has seen some success but raises questions concerning the effectiveness of deportation as a central policy in containing transnational organized crime in the US.

In early October, authorities announced the conclusion of a four-month, nationwide gang member sweep that netted some 1,300 suspects in 23 cities. New York, Miami and Dallas had the highest number of arrests, but other cities such as Raleigh, North Carolina, and Boise, Idaho were also on the list, with 93 and 34 arrests, respectively.

Some members were charged with assault, kidnapping and human trafficking. The vast majority, however, were charged with immigration violations. Of the 1,300 arrested, 939 will be deported back to their home countries, such as Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

But the problem does not stop at deportation. The nature of illegal immigration dictates that many of these deported gang members will return to the US within a relatively short time. Some manage to return within a week, others in less time. And yet others lie about their country of origin, telling ICE agents they are Mexican, for instance, so they will be deported to an airport that lies roughly at the halfway point between their home country and the US-Mexican border.

This process has been described as a “conveyer belt” between the US, Mexico and Central America. It is a situation where, in some cases, gang members benefit from deportation as a free ride home. Once there, they deliver messages and pick up new recruits, or “clients”, before making the journey back to the US.

California authorities announced a separate gang sweep on 16 November. They had arrested 26 members of the MS-13 in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Included in the line-up were a number of members arrested for illegal re-entry and one so-called “shot caller.” Oscar Chacon, who had previously been arrested in methamphetamine trafficking, had been deported to El Salvador prior to his 15 November arrest.

In another case, a man considered a leader of a Honduran arm of the MS-13, Ever Anibal Rivera Paz, was deported a number of times, returning to the US with apparent ease. Wanted as the organizer of a public bus attack in December 2004 that killed some 28 Hondurans, River Paz used his ability to move back and forth between the US and Central America to avoid authorities in both Honduras and the US.

After the massacre in Honduras, Rivera Paz illegally re-entered the US. He was arrested in February 2005, and after serving time in a US prison, was seen boarding a deportation flight from Houston back to Honduras in late November that same year - but somewhere along the way he escaped.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the reception point for deportees in Tegulcigalpa, Honduras, is a “low-slung beige building.” There are no fingerprint scanners or other digital means for identification confirmation. Deportees are asked to provide identification and sign their name in a three-ringed binder where records are stored by date.

Honduras lacks the resources and processing capacity to cope with the 26,000 deportees received from the US in 2006 or likely any other Central American country. The US has repatriated 20,719 Guatemalans so far in 2007 of which just over 3,000 were listed as criminals - again exceeding the ability of the recipient country to cope.

Authorities in Honduras claim that sometimes the ICE sends them a list of deported criminals and sometimes it does not. Jorge Bustillo Rivera, an Interpol agent who checks Honduran deportees for criminal records when they arrive in Honduras, claims he cannot manage the workload. He told the Houston Chronicle that his list of deported criminals was growing by eight to 10 cases a day.

Rivera Paz, who is known to have multiple aliases, must have used one when he slipped by Honduran authorities and into the public on 17 November 2005, upon arrival in Tegucigalpa. He had been deported twice in 1996, once in 1997 and again in 2001. He was so comfortable with the process that he asked the sentencing judge in Texas before serving time in February 2005 to deport him back to Honduras to pay for crimes he had committed there.

This man’s case, while perhaps extreme, represents an important reality many leaders in Washington, and those aspiring to become president, have yet to acknowledge. Deportation, while an important law enforcement tool in the US, has a crippling ripple effect in Central America and Mexico, where criminal deportees are easily able to escape law enforcement and quickly return to the US.