Gang Activity Now a Focus for Immigration Agents

KIRK SEMPLE (The New York Times) | December 9, 2010

When Walter Alberto Torres, a Salvadoran immigrant and a gang member, confessed in October 2009 that he had unsuccessfully plotted the assassination of an immigration agent in New York City, the admission touched off more than just his prosecution.

In the weeks that followed, immigration authorities, working with other law enforcement agencies, conducted raids on suspected hide-outs of Mr. Torres’s gang, La Mara Salvatrucha 13, an international network of violent cliques with a growing presence in New York City and its suburbs.

And that offensive — intended in part, officials said, to signal that the government would not tolerate attacks on its officers — was only the beginning for the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the months since, agents in the office’s investigative division have expanded their dragnet far beyond La Mara Salvatrucha and across the region, from Ulster County in the Hudson Valley to eastern Long Island.

From October 2009 through September, they arrested 285 suspects they said were gang members or close associates — a record for the office and a fivefold increase over the same period the previous year.

The surge, which has unfolded with little public notice, coincided with the arrival of James T. Hayes Jr., who became the special agent in charge of the investigations division several weeks before Mr. Torres confessed to the murder plot.

Mr. Hayes, 37, said that while the threat to an agent had fired up his team, the arrests also reflected a new emphasis for the investigative unit, which enforces more than 400 federal customs and immigration statutes. When he assumed the job, he said, he reviewed the office’s recent moves against gangs — it had made 57 such arrests in the previous year — and concluded that his team could be doing far more.

He added 3 agents to a force that now numbers 11, “and really gave them a mandate, not just to look at individual gang members but to look at these street gangs as criminal organizations and to use all our tools to disrupt and dismantle them,” Mr. Hayes said in an interview.

The office’s stepped-up action against gangs reflects a nationwide shift in priorities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, which says it is now focusing on capturing immigrants who pose a threat to public safety and security, rather than those with civil violations. The New York offensive has come under the banner of Operation Community Shield, a five-year-old national campaign by the immigration agency to dismember violent street gangs by prosecuting and deporting their members and associates.

Several law enforcement officials in the New York area said gang activity appears to have grown in recent years, particularly among immigrants, spurring the formation of new anti-gang units and greater collaboration between local and federal agencies. Yet even as that has produced an increase in prosecutions, officials said, the very nature of gangs — quick to form, grow and change shape — has made them particularly hard to track and tackle, and the immigration agents’ contribution has helped.

“I think everyone is being creative about different ways to deal with the situation,” said a local prosecutor who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue and requested anonymity. “There are a lot of different agencies involved.”

Immigration officials in the city say the vast majority, about 74 percent, of their gang arrests in the past year have been for federal and state crimes, like illegal weapons possession, murder conspiracy and drug trafficking. The rest have been for immigration-related reasons and have often resulted in deportation, they said.

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