|UNITED AGAINST MS-13
Our Central American Partnerships
The law enforcement officers from Central America and the U.S. were mid-way through a tour of the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles when they spotted a shirtless prisoner exercising in the rooftop recreation area. The tattoos covering the man’s back, neck, and shaved head had gotten their attention—one tattoo in particular. When asked about it, the prisoner moved closer to the steel mesh barrier that separated him from the group and said the design was Mayan—“just another way to say ‘13.’ ”
Thirteen, as in MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha. It’s one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the U.S. and Central America. It was MS-13 and another transnational gang, 18th Street, that brought this group of 27 officers together as part of a program created by our MS-13 National Gang Task Force (NGTF).
The Central American Law Enforcement Exchange, known as CALEE, is a joint FBI and State Department initiative which brings U.S. and Central American agencies together to share information and intelligence in the fight against the growing gang problem.
Because MS-13 and 18th Street cross borders to commit crimes such as murder, extortion, and drug trafficking, it’s critical that law enforcement also work together across borders, sharing everything from criminal records and investigative techniques to ongoing intelligence efforts. Efficiently exchanging information as basic as types of tattoos—a person’s body art often indicates his or her gang affiliation—can alert officers if new gangs or “cliques” are turning up in their areas.
“The CALEE program is fundamentally about building relationships,” said Special Agent Robert Guyton, who runs the program through the NGTF. “We’re talking about relationships built on personal interaction, not just by talking on the phone or sending e-mails.”
The recently completed exchange program—the second of its kind—brought together representatives from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize, along with their U.S. counterparts from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and officers from Northern Virginia and several jurisdictions in North Carolina, where gang activities have been increasing. For those in the program who did not speak English, two of our Spanish-speaking language analysts provided translation.
For nearly a month, participants spent their days together in settings ranging from conference rooms and command posts to ride-alongs with officers on the street. The program started with a visit to our training facility in Quantico, Virginia and included tours of prisons in North Carolina, California, and El Salvador. At every step of the way, the Central Americans saw how U.S. agencies work—and work together—to combat gangs.
In Los Angeles, the group heard from gang experts by day, and by night accompanied officers who policed the worst neighborhoods in patrol cars and even in helicopters. Along the way, many friendships were forged.
Some countries, like El Salvador, have serious gang problems. Others, like Belize, have emerging problems and are educating themselves about gang operations and tactics through CALEE. Still other countries, like Nicaragua, are learning investigative strategies and techniques to make sure their minor gang problems don’t become major ones.
“The CALEE experience,” said Navas Funes, of Nicaragua’s Policía Nacional Civil through an interpreter, “has strengthened the ties among us and united us all in a common cause against transnational gangs.”
Check back for a feature video on CALEE in the near future.