A task force led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested more than 1,000 suspected gang members at the conclusion of a nearly five-week-long operation dubbed Shadowfire. Suspected detained on March 28 are charged with crimes ranging from sex trafficking, narcotics violations, murder, and racketeering. Most those arrested are U.S. citizens. However, 239 of the total 1,113 arrested are foreign nationals hailing from Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, as well as Europe.

However, most of them were affiliated with criminal organizations with ties to Latin America, including MS-13, Sureños, Norteños, Bloods, and several prison-based gangs. Most of the ICE-led activity was focused in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, El Paso, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The raid also seized 150 firearms, nearly 50 pounds of narcotics, in addition to more than $70,000 in U.S. currency.

Transnational gangs, such as MS-13 and the Sureños, have been a target of ICE activity since at least 2005. It is frequently involved in raids on Americans and foreigners because of its expertise in international gangs. Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) agents have apprehended more than 40,000 gang members and seized more than 8,000 firearms in the past ten years.

“This operation is the latest example of ICE’s ongoing efforts, begun more than a decade ago under Operation Community Shield, to target violent gang members and their associates, to eradicate the violence they inflict upon our communities and to stop the cash flow to transnational organized crime groups operating overseas,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña in a statement.

As a surge operation, Project Shadowfire was under the auspices of Operation Community Shield, and led by the HSI National Gang Unit. Also directly involved were state, local and federal law enforcement partners, including ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) in order to apprehend individuals from the various gangs. Operation Community Shield seeks to combat the growth of transnational prison gangs, criminal street gangs, and outlaw motorcycle gangs in the United States and abroad.

Recent National Gang Unit-led operations include: Southern Tempest in 2011, targeting gangs affiliated with drug trafficking; Project Nefarious in 2012, targeting gangs involved in human smuggling and trafficking; Project Southbound in 2014, targeting the Sureños, the fasting growing transnational gang in the U.S., and Project Wildfire in 2015, the largest gang surge conducted by HSI to date.

As part of U.S. collaboration with Mexican law enforcement, ICE held an anti-gang conference with the U.S. Department of State in Mexico City to provide training and capacity building for law enforcement officers to combat and prevent gang activities.

MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world. It emerged in the Latino community in California in the 1980s among illegal immigrants and refugees from political violence in Central America. They graduated from street violence in California and have since spread their operations in several states, including Texas, Florida, and Illinois. The reach of MS-13 extends to Europe and South America, in collaboration with Mexican criminal organizations.

The Sureños (Spanish for “the Southerners”), Sur 13, or Sureños X3 are groups of loosely affiliated gangs that pay tribute to the Mexican Mafia while in American prisons. Many Sureño gangs have rivalries with one another and the only time this rivalry is set aside is when they enter the prison system. The thousands of Central American children and adolescents who entered the U.S. illegally in waves over the last two years are prey to the various Latino gangs. Children who sought refuge from the brutal gangs in Central America have encountered them again while trying to make a new life in the United States.

According to law enforcement authorities in New York, gangs affiliated with MS-13 are recruiting Latino youth. In 2014, Sgt. Mike Marino of the Nassau County Police Department said, "They were targeted by the Latino gangs that were already established here," who added, "The gangs did try to recruit some of them." Police in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island NY also have to contend with groups such as the Latin Kings, Netas and Sureños, that are now recruiting new members in suburban areas such as Riverhead, Central Islip, Huntington Station and other neighborhoods with established Central American communities.

MS-13 contributes to the political and economic instability in Central America by committing serial murders and intimidation. The governments of the various Central American republics are hard-pressed to combat the gangs, which are heavily armed and ruthless.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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