Nearly 300 gang members and associates were arrested in the Los Angeles area in the last six months as part of a nationwide crackdown that targeted gangs involved in cross-border smuggling of people and weapons, drug trafficking, identity theft and other crimes, authorities said Thursday.
The arrests were among 1,785 made around the country from March to September as part of Operation Community Shield, a coordinated effort by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that was launched by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2005, authorities said.
The recent sweep included the arrest of 78 alleged members or associates of the Avenues gang on federal charges related to drug dealing and previously unsolved killings, said Jorge Guzman, an assistant special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In addition, Elmer Fredy Hernandez-Ayala, 29, a Salvadoran national and a member of the 18th Street gang, was arrested on charges of reentry after deportation, and nine members and associates of Barrio Evil 13, a Bell Gardens street gang, were arrested on drug trafficking and weapons charges.
The operation was initially intended to target the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, one of the most violent street gangs in the United States, but has since grown into an international effort, Guzman said.
Federal agents identify gang leaders and their associates and quickly seek their prosecution and possible deportation from the country, Guzman said. They also work to seize the gang's financial assets, he said.
"That is a huge hammer against these criminal gangs," Guzman said.
The operation has chipped away at some of the country's most notorious gangs, including the Sureno and various Asian Tong gangs, he said.
"Some of these street gangs are involved in so many illegal activities that rise to the level of organized crime," Guzman said.
Many of those arrested were already in custody or have been deported, he said.
Of the 293 arrests made in the Los Angeles area, 185 were on criminal charges, said Virginia Kice, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman.
The remaining arrests were for immigration violations, and federal authorities are working to deport the foreign nationals from the country, Kice said.
"The goal of Community Shield isn't to just take individual gang members off the streets, but to disrupt the cycle of crime and dismantle the entire gang," she said.
Kice said many transnational street gangs have significant numbers of foreign-born members. Authorities have worked on identifying gang members who previously were deported and prosecuting them for felony immigration violations. Using both criminal arrest authority and prosecuting them for immigration violations is a "one-two punch," Kice said.
The majority of the local arrests occurred in Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire, Kice said. In Los Angeles County, 147 were arrested, compared with 135 in the Inland Empire, nine in Orange County and two in Ventura County.