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VIOLENT CRIME
Officials Discuss Fight Against Gangs

01/16/07

The FBI arrests suspected members of MS-13 in New York.
The FBI arrests suspected members of MS-13 in New York.

Two days before Christmas, a robber walked into a bank in Arkansas and demanded money. A bank teller complied. Then the robber shot and killed the teller and on his way out bid "Merry Christmas" to stunned witnesses.

The crime in Little Rock was a grim denouement to a year that preliminary FBI statistics show saw an increase in violent crimes. Couple the stats with figures that show a steady rise in gang activity in the U.S. and you've got the attention of law enforcement officials from the Attorney General to the cop on the beat.

"Let there be no mistake, we're up to the challenge," James "Chip" Burrus,
In Depth
head of our Criminal Investigative Division, told reporters Tuesday during a briefing at the Department of Justice on the battle against gangs and violent crime. Burrus joined top Justice officials in illustrating the myriad ways—in undercover operations, in education, and in the courts—that law enforcement officials are waging battle against a growing scourge.

Just one gang—Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13—is believed to have 10,000 gang members operating in at least 33 states. The 18th Street Gang is active in 36 states. They have hierarchies and business models—as do many smaller, regional gangs. To fight them, officials are using intelligence and tools much like those used in the fight against organized crime.

"There are a lot of tools in our toolbox that we can apply," Burrus said. Those include traditional wire taps and surveillance and conspiracy statutes that punish enterprises for large scale criminal activity. For example, just last week 13 suspected MS-13 members were indicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges in Tennessee. The organization operated much like a business—members met regularly to discuss business and problems and even paid dues. They are charged in at least three murders, underscoring their motto—"Mata, Viola, Controla" (Kill, Rape, Control).

Here are some other effective tools:

  • Safe Streets Task Forces: FBI agents work with state and local partners on more than 170 Safe Streets Task Forces; 130 of those are focused exclusively on violent gangs. The task forces, which include 816 FBI agents in 54 field offices, put federal, state, and local law enforcement in the same place at street level, eliminating duplication and leveraging the strength of each.
  • The National Gang Targeting Enforcement & Coordination Center: A multi-agency task force of agents and investigators looks at ways to make the most impact-"to hit harder," said Alice Fisher, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division.
  • The National Gang Intelligence Center at the FBI is staffed with 25 intelligence analysts who zero in on gangs by analyzing their migrations, growth, and criminal activities and by sharing the information across the law enforcement community.
  • MS-13 National Gang Task Force: The FBI established the task force in 2004 as a clearinghouse for local, state, and federal law enforcement to share gang data and spot trends. The task force last year instituted the Central American Fingerprint Exploitation initiative, which merged criminal records in Central America with the FBI's fingerprint database. To date, the database includes 100,000 fingerprint cards—20,000 of those have had contact with U.S. law enforcement.

Assistant Director Burrus said working with international law enforcement will be essential in the battle against transnational gangs like MS-13. "We'll continue to work with our partners overseas to try to put a stop to this menace," he said.

Bottom line, even with our increased focus on terrorism and other key priorities, our commitment to combating violent gangs and violent crime in your cities and neighborhoods remains strong.

Additional resources: Violent Crime webpage | Violent Gangs webpage