County, US Atty.’s Office Join Forces to Go After Illegals with Gang

KESQ.com news services
Posted: Feb 26, 2008 6:04 PM EST

Riverside County law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will combine forces to catch and prosecute illegal immigrants with gang ties who are “slipping through the cracks” and returning to the country in violation of federal — but not state — law, it was announced Tuesday.

“Now we don’t have to let them stay in our community,” said Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco. “By grabbing federal authority and connecting it up with our (local law enforcement) resources … when we see that guy in the community who’s a known gang member, we don’t just identify him, take his name and say, `OK, see you later.’ We say, `You’re under arrest.”‘

Pacheco joined with U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien, head of the Justice Department’s Central District of California office, and Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff at sheriff’s headquarters in Riverside to announce an initiative that promises increased efforts to find and prosecute criminal street gang members with felony convictions who have been previously deported.

“This initiative shows the dedication of the district attorney and sheriff to add another arrow in the law enforcement quiver to tackle this gang problem,” said O’Brien. “The simple fact that a criminal alien is sitting back here and has re-entered the country illegally is a federal felony…. If we can identify these individuals, we can slap them hard with a federal sentence.”

Under the agreement, a Riverside County deputy district attorney will be designated “special blankistant U.S. attorney” and authorized to prosecute illegal immigrant street gang members under federal law, according to O’Brien.

State law makes no provision for charging a previously convicted felon with a crime for re-entering the country after being deported, O’Brien said, but federal law calls for a maximum 20-year prison sentence for violations.

He said most of the time violators plead guilty to a lesser offense and receive a few months to two years in federal prison.

According to Pacheco, using a local deputy district attorney with a background prosecuting gang-related crimes for the new initiative was like finding the “missing piece” in the overall effort to expel illegal immigrant street gang members from local communities.

“This is another piece in the process — the missing piece — to get those gang members who are slipping through the cracks,” Pacheco said. “Before, if they didn’t commit a local crime — robbery, rape, murder — we couldn’t do much. The feds can ‘arrest’ them, but the feds are overwhelmed for lack of resources. We can take the county’s 80-plus gang task force officers and … concentrate on these gang members.”

Three specific gangs were highlighted during the announcement — MS 13, the 18th Street gang and the Wah Ching 23 gang.

Together, the three gangs have roughly 250 members residing in Riverside County, Pacheco said, conceding that the number seemed small — until one considers how much influence each gang member may carry.

“The illegal immigrant gang member mixes with U.S. citizens, has a child, the child becomes a citizen, later becomes a gang member,” the district attorney explained. “They (illegal immigrant gang members) are embedded in our local gangs.”

Pacheco said the county’s gang infestation — an estimated 11,000 active gang members live here — was a major reason why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office recently named Riverside County one of 22 counties statewide that is a “high-intensity area” for criminal street gang activity.

The MS 13 gang, 100,000 strong with ties to Mexico and most Central American countries, was designated the most dangerous criminal street gang in America by the Department of Homeland Security, according to Pacheco.

He said 90 percent of its members are foreign nationals.

The 18th Street gang, 60 percent of whose members are from Mexico and Central and South America, also boasts a membership of 100,000 and has been active in the cities of Banning, Hemet, Moreno Valley, Riverside and San Jacinto, Pacheco said.

The Wah Ching 23 gang was characterized as a component of “Asian organized crime,” with roughly 700 members in California, the district attorney’s office said.

“International gangs take on a different flavor than our homegrown gangs,” the D.A. said. “They reach across borders. They know no limits. No budget crisis will stop them. They’re literally everywhere.”

According to O’Brien, in an average year, the U.S. Attorney’s Central District office, which includes Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, prosecutes 500 – 600 cases involving previously convicted felons who have been deported and returned to the country illegally.

O’Brien cited several examples of defendants who repeatedly violated U.S. laws by illegally re-entering the country. In one instance, he said, a criminal street gang member who had served a sentence for blankault with a deadly weapon was deported 10 times in the space of 16 years.

“These are the kind of individuals who pose the greatest threat to the citizens of Riverside County,” O’Brien said.

When asked if he thought the nation’s border enforcement and immigration policies might be largely to blame for the lack of success in barring criminals from re-entering the country, Pacheco deferred.

“I’m not in the federal government, but I appreciate you asking me that question,” the district attorney said. “Tom, you’re in the federal government, do you have a response?”

“I’m going to pblank on that,” O’Brien replied, amid laughter.

According to Pacheco, the county-federal partnership will involve a coordinated effort between local anti-gang unit police officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who will in some cases join local patrols and arrest known criminal street gang members in the country illegally.

The deputy district attorney who is blankigned full-time to prosecute the federal cases will be aided by the D.A.’s 20 gang crimes prosecutors and support staff, Pacheco said.

“This is going to be a whole new world for them,” he said. “Most of what we do in our office is reactive: A crime is committed; we investigate and prosecute.

“What we are trying to do now is not only to get the individuals who are here, but also prevent people from coming in, and send a larger message: Riverside County is not the place to be if you’re a gang member, whether from this country or not.”

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