Friday, August 24, 2007

A sweep by federal immigration agents and local authorities has netted 60 Mexican immigrants with ties to violent street gangs

Greg Gross:

The two-week-long sweep is part of Operation Community Shield, an ongoing nationwide effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to dismantle transnational gangs.

“In general, it seems that gangs in San Diego are composed of about 20 percent foreign nationals, and the rest U.S. citizens,” said Serge Duarte, deputy ICE special agent-in-charge in San Diego.

“We think it's important to the gangs to maintain those (international) links to have access to narcotics, to weapons trafficking.”

All of the 60 gang members are expected to leave the country, either voluntarily or through deportation, which carries added penalties if they're caught in the United States again.

Of those 60, 11 of them first will be prosecuted on state and federal charges, including weapons charges.

“There's one who's being prosecuted for receiving stolen property, three counts of spousal battery and violating a court order,” Duarte said. Furthermore, most of the 11 who are being prosecuted were in the United States after having already been formally expelled from the country, he said.

In addition to the 60 gang members, law enforcement officers picked up another 68 Mexican nationals believed to be illegally in U.S. territory.

“They weren't gang members or associates, to our knowledge. They were just in the wrong place,” Duarte said.

Federal authorities will seek formal deportation hearings for all 60 gang members picked up during the sweep, Duarte said. A deportation, which requires a ruling from an immigration judge, carries more weight legally than a voluntary repatriation, in which illegal immigrants are allowed to leave the country by their own choice.

Those with a prior criminal history caught on U.S. soil again after having been deported could face up to 10 years in federal prison.

“Our intent is to have a formal deport process for every one of them,” he said, adding that ICE also is looking at using federal money-laundering statutes against the gangs.

“We're going to use every tool in the toolbox,” he said.

The raids focused on gang members in Escondido, Oceanside, San Marcos and Vista. The largest number of gang members was found in San Marcos, followed by Escondido, said ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack.

In addition to ICE agents, officers involved in the raids included sheriff's deputies, Escondido and Oceanside police officers, county probation officers and members of the North County Regional Gang Task Force.

Since it began in 2005, Community Shield has led to the arrest of more than 4,900 gang members and associates belonging to more than 500 street gangs around the country. Of those arrested, 272 were in the San Diego area.

The three gangs that produced the greatest number of arrestees in this latest sweep were Varrio San Marcos, South Los and the Vista Homeboys, Duarte said.

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