Thursday, February 24, 2005

The gang's all here

A bunch of law enforcement professionals, including 20 U.S. officials, got together in El Salvador this week to share information about Central American gangs. Explained Harvey Smith, El Salvador's honorary consul in California, who set up the conference: "It's all about networking. The gang members are communicating nicely. Now we have to as well."

And he wasn't kidding -- apparently these guys are pretty nice. For example, after the Salvadoran cops knocked down some doors and dragged a few mareros out from their homes, to demonstrate to conference participants just how these things should be done, an
AP report published in the Miami Herald reported:

Blinking in the beams of flashlights and stripped of their shirts so the visitors could get a better look at their tattoos, the gang members were trucked to a gas station after being pulled from a house.

They smiled and chatted amicably with U.S. officials who quizzed them on their gang affiliations. None readily admitted having been in the United States, but a few had tattoos indicating links to factions known mostly in California. Some also appeared to speak at least some English, and one even gave a federal official the telephone number of a fellow gang member.

For most, it wasn't their first arrest. While some were specifically targeted on homicide charges, others were rounded up on "association" charges, which can yield several years in jail.

"We aren't animals," said Osmedo Artiaga, a 27-year-old member of the MS-18 gang, as officers studied his tattoos, including the likeness of Jennifer Lopez on his right leg.

On a more serious note, and unlike a slew of other press reports in recent months, the AP also gets it right on the origins of Salvadoran gangs:

Salvadoran gangs began in Los Angeles among young migrants who moved to California to escape the country's 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. They spread to Central America in the 1990s as their members were deported, mostly for committing crimes, and many have begun sneaking back into the United States as El Salvador and Honduras launch crackdowns aimed at exterminating the gangs.

Also in a more serious vein, the AP story importantly reports U.S. officials are finally setting the record straight, saying there's "no evidence" linking these gangs to terrorism, again despite numerous press reports to the contrary. This very worthy point is the central focus of the Christian Science Monitor story, which has a definitive quote from the FBI:
"The FBI, in concert with the US intelligence community and government of several Central American republics, has determined that there is no basis in fact to support this allegation of Al Qaeda or even radical Islamic ties to MS13 [a.ka. Mara Salvatrucha]," says Robert Clifford, director of the new force, who is in El Salvador this week to discuss cooperation with his Central American counterparts.
Let's see whether that gets reported anywhere in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Tony Saca actually alleged as much on the opening day of the conference, when he said that this was a national security issue and that one can't discard the possibility of gang ties to terrorists.

UPDATE: But wait, there's one more reason that gangs aren't likely to have ties to terrorists. According to another AP story in the Miami Herald, the conference participants were treated to a talk by Mike Figueroa, a 33-year-0ld ex-gang member:

Figueroa, who was deported from California in 1997 for a slew of criminal offenses, has little in common with an al-Qaida operative. Like many gang members, he's deeply Christian.

"Why would they mess up their gang like that?" asked Figueroa, who has "In God I trust" tattooed across his forehead.

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