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FBI Pressured INS to Aid L.A. Police Anti-Gang Effort

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Immigration and Naturalization Service agents ordered to deport immigrants detained by anti-gang officers in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division told investigators the assignment was “rammed down our throats” over the objections of the U.S. attorney’s office after pressure from the FBI, according to federal documents.

The 27 INS agents, who were interviewed for an internal immigration service report, create a composite picture of an unpopular program launched by overzealous INS managers over the objections of agents in the INS’ own Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force--known by the acronym OCDETF. They said they repeatedly told John McAllister, the INS assistant district director for investigations, that their involvement in the program did not conform to their congressional mandate to combat large-scale drug trafficking. LAPD’s cooperation in the effort may have violated a special city order that restricts police inquiries into residents’ immigration status.

Moreover, the task force coordinator, John Del George, raised moral objections to its operations, saying that “only a very small portion of those arrested were actually hard-core gang members.” According to the report, Del George “recalled interviewing one ‘gang member’ who was actually an assistant manager at McDonald’s, was married, had kids, and had been out of ‘gang’ life for years.”

INS agents have told The Times that their task force was responsible for deporting more than 160 illegal immigrants in 1997 and 1998 and for prosecuting about 40 more for illegal reentry after deportation, a felony.

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In 1997, according to the INS report, the FBI was eager to obtain as much help as possible from immigration authorities in curbing the activities of the 18th Street gang, which then was extremely active in the LAPD’s Rampart Division. INS’ own Violent Gang Task Force had begun deporting 18th Street members in 1994. But, by 1997, “the FBI had amassed considerable historical evidence on the 18th Street Gang and had in place surveillance,” according to the INS correspondence.

As a result of that investment the bureau, according to the report, repeatedly demanded help from INS agents, “on the pretense of making an OCDETF case out of an FBI investigation of gang members with no drug or organized crime connection.” Assistant U.S. Atty. John Gordon agreed, according to the INS report, that the FBI request did not meet congressional guidelines.

Ultimately, however, INS supervisors ignored both Gordon and their own agents and agreed to the FBI’s request.

FBI’s Role May Raise Questions

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The FBI’s role in securing the deportations of Rampart residents may raise questions about the bureau’s participation in LAPD’s investigation of the unfolding scandal that LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks announced last week. At the very least, it seems certain to attract the interest of those already calling for an independent outside probe of the department.

FBI spokesmen declined repeated requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for the INS’ western region said she could not react because she had not seen the documents. A Times report on collaboration between the INS and LAPD last week triggered in INS internal audit of whether its officers participated in any LAPD abuses of immigrants’ rights that went unreported.

Two INS units--the Violent Gang Task Force and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force--cooperated with the FBI, LAPD’s CRASH unit and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the suppression of the 18th Street gang, according to government documents.

Theoretically, agents of the INS Violent Gang Task Force were supposed to arrest suspected gang members and turn their cases over to the organized crime group, but in reality, government documents show, there was direct communication between INS agents and LAPD officers in the Rampart Division.

In a May 1998 report, an OCDETF agent writes that LAPD Rampart CRASH Officer Michael Buchanan--one of the officers relieved of duty in the ongoing scandal--"spoke with me about Marvin Rodriguez, AKA Sleepy"--a suspected 18th Street gang member on May 1.

“I explained to him that I had prior contact with Rodriguez in 1995 and I knew he had been deported,” the INS agent wrote. “I explained to Buchanan that Rodriguez was in the United States in violation of the law.”

The next day, Buchanan called the INS agent to tell him he had detained Rodriguez, and “I told him I would meet him at the LAPD station,” the agent wrote.

At the station, the INS agent detained Rodriguez and another gang member, Jose Gudiel Brenes--also an illegal immigrant--noting that “Buchanan states that they had seen Rodriguez in the street with Gudiel near 4th and Rampart.”

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Controversy Angers Officer

Such arrangements led INS’ Del George to tell interviewers compiling the report that immigration agents “were relegated to the position of cleanup. He said another unit, the [INS Violent Gang Task Force] would make arrests, usually in the evening, and the next morning the OCDETF agents were ordered to process these individuals and develop prosecutions.”

“Mr. Del George said there was a gang out there, consisting of mostly juveniles, who were involved with extortion-type things, but this did not constitute an OCDETF type case,” the report said.

One Rampart CRASH officer, who did not wish to be identified, said it annoyed him that the collaboration between Rampart CRASH officers and the INS had touched off controversy. The officer said that in 1997 and 1998 cooperation was so routine that he once watched an INS agent in the CRASH office do a laptop search on a detainee’s immigration status.

The officer said the city’s Special Order 40, which states that “officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person"--is too vague and open-ended to restrict anti-gang officers much.

“If deportation is the only tool available, we’ll use it,” the officer said.

The INS documents also quote from an interview with a supervisory special agent, Danny Hudson, who said that the task force “was given the mission to work with the LAPD CRASH [anti-gang] Unit, to handle all immigration matters concerning the apprehension of 18th Street gang personnel.”

According to the interviewer, Hudson “said this was a political move that came from Mayor [Richard Riordan’s] office.”

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However, Kelly Martin, Riordan’s chief of staff, said she was unaware of any involvement by the Riordan administration in the Rampart deportations.

“This never happened that I knew of,” Martin said. “I think sometimes people wrongly attribute motives to the mayor’s office.”

Martin said the Riordan administration was well aware of the LAPD’s so-called Special Order 40, which strictly limits the Police Department’s role in handling suspects who are in the country illegally. Neither Riordan nor his aides have ever urged any change in that policy, Martin said.

“We’ve never touched Special Order 40,” she said.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said the office has prosecuted “somewhere in the area of three or four dozen” 18th Street gang members or associates for illegal reentry after deportation since 1997.

“Whether or not this was part of any formal initiative I can’t determine right now,” Mrozek said. “We’ve got a whole new administration and no one among the new people has any recollection.”

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Times staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this story.

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