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Target: cross-border gangs

The FBI will join L.A. police officials to train Latin American authorities in tracking `transnational' street criminals.

January 27, 2007|Duke Helfand and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

Seeking to combat the spread of street gangs across international borders, the FBI will join forces with Los Angeles police and prosecutors next month to teach authorities from Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American countries how to better track and investigate gang crime.

The three-day training in Los Angeles comes amid an alarming increase in "transnational" gangs that move between countries despite repeated efforts to dismantle their organizations and finances, authorities said.

The U.S. law enforcement officials will focus much of their attention on how they have dealt with local gangs that have gained footholds in Mexico and Central America.

Special attention will be given, for example, to the MS13 and 18th Street gangs, both of which began in Los Angeles but have branched out to Central America, federal officials said. About 12 of 17 members of the 18th Street gang arrested in Los Angeles in September were foreign nationals, the officials said.

The training will include discussions about which laws countries use -- or do not use -- to attack gang problems. El Salvador, for example, does not allow wiretapping, a strategy employed by U.S. authorities to monitor gang activity.

"Many of these countries are seeing an influence of street gangs that evolved in Los Angeles but are moving [there] because of deportation," said Lt. Paul Vernon, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "Many of these are hardened criminals."

The interagency training Feb. 7-9 will occur as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton unveil their strategies for dealing with the city's own 39,000 gang members. They are expected to call for a multi-agency effort using court orders, injunctions and stepped-up enforcement to target Los Angeles' most dangerous gangs. Among those expected to attend the FBI summit are Bratton, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and representatives of the city attorney and district attorney.

They will be joined by agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as the Justice Department's new assistant attorney general for gangs and violence.

Police officials from other cities in California, Virginia and Maryland are also scheduled to attend.

The foreign police presence also will be formidable. It will include the directors of the national police forces of El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala, as well as police chiefs from major cities in Mexico, according to Robert Loosle, special agent in charge of the criminal division for the FBI's Los Angeles office.

"Essentially it is to get everybody together to build partnerships and provide for better communications and information sharing," said Loosle, who added that the exchange would continue at an April conference in El Salvador.

Villaraigosa did not mention the gang training during a news conference Friday at which he discussed his trip this week to Washington, D.C. But the mayor insisted that the responsibility for enforcing immigration laws rested with the federal government.

"Los Angeles is not in the position to crack down on illegal immigration," he said.

Still, Matt Szabo, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city was an enthusiastic partner in the FBI training. "It's absolutely necessary," Szabo said. "It's a big deal."

In El Salvador, law enforcement officials noted a 300% increase in extortions last year over the year before, including kidnappings in which families were told to wire money to people in Los Angeles, Loosle said. With a population of nearly 7 million, El Salvador has been experiencing about 10 homicides a day, with 60% to 70% of them gang-related, he said.

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