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Combating threat of cross-border gangs is discussed

Times Staff Writer

Rodrigo Avila-Aviles came to Los Angeles from El Salvador this week to discuss an export-import problem that has nothing to do with tariffs or quotas.

As director general of the El Salvador National Civil Police, Avila-Aviles is here to talk to the FBI about what can be done about the number of gang members moving back and forth between Central America and the United States.

Once here, they learn new ways to menace neighborhoods before they are deported, the director general said.

“As a general rule, the guys who have more status in the gangs in El Salvador are the ones who have been deported from the United States, who have been in prison here,” Avila-Aviles said Tuesday as he and the heads of police forces for four other Central American nations prepared to discuss the issue today with their U.S. counterparts.

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In Guatemala, there are up to 20,000 gang members, about 1,000 of them deportees from the U.S., according to Erwin Johann Sperisen-Vernon, director general of the Guatemala National Civil Police.

“These deportees come to our country and organize and spread their franchises there,” Sperisen-Vernon said. “They get more sophisticated in their ways of committing crime.”

But the traffic goes both ways, with U.S. law enforcement struggling to deal with an influx of gang members from Central America and Mexico. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said the large number of such criminal gang members illegally in the United States is making gang violence worse.

Law enforcement executives hope the three-day meeting at the Universal City Hilton will help them find solutions while learning from one another.

“The effort is to continue to inform, educate and develop relationships so we can have a much more concentrated effort internationally on dealing with our gang problems,” said Bratton, who will address the meeting today.

Also attending will be the heads of law enforcement in Mexico, Belize and Honduras, as well as representatives of the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, and police chiefs from Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.

The extent of the cross-border problem was made clear during a recent raid on gang members involved in violent extortion schemes in one El Salvadoran town. Of the 120 people arrested, 40 had been deported at least once from the U.S., Avila-Aviles said.

Although gangs in El Salvador include some with names tied to the Los Angeles area -- the 18th Street and MS-13 gangs for instance -- Avila-Aviles is quick to add that he does not blame the U.S. for the problem.

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“These guys are Salvadoran,” he said. “They learn all this stuff in this country, but I cannot blame the United States for deporting them. However, even though the U.S. is not to blame, we need to look out for new mechanisms so we have more control over these guys.”

Cooperative measures announced as part of a four-part plan this week by U. S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales include fugitive apprehension, international coordination on deportations, information sharing, and cross-border training and prevention programs.

To better identify, track and apprehend gang members, the FBI will accelerate implementation of the Central American Fingerprinting Exploitation system, Gonzales said.

“This initiative will enable the United States and our colleagues in Central America to share information and coordinate law enforcement efforts as we work in partnership to target and dismantle violent gangs,” Gonzales said.

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Eighty out of every 100 homicides in El Salvador are gang-related, according to Avila-Aviles.

“If we put it together as a whole, the single most important criminal problem in our country is the gang activity,” he said.

The directors general from El Salvador and Guatemala say they want the meeting’s discussions also to focus on ways to prevent young people from joining gangs.

“We need some regional initiatives in the prevention area,” Avila-Aviles said.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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