EL PASO, Texas — Gang members could be prosecuted for promoting their activities or recruiting members on the Internet if a bill introduced Thursday in the Texas Legislature is approved.
Dallas Republican state Sen. John Carona's Anti-Gang and Corruption Act would crack down on gang activity, including punishing online gang activity.
At a news conference Thursday in Austin, Carona said gangs in Mexico build relationships with street gangs in the U.S. to expand their bases of operation. These gangs, he said, recruit members from schools, prisons and neighborhoods.
The bill, which probably will go to committee for discussion, would make participating in gang Internet activities a felony.
"This legislation will significantly reduce the ability of transnational gangs to disrupt our communities and recruit our children, and will begin to help communities fight back against the threat," he said. "The key components of the bill will allow communities as well as families disrupted by gangs to take gangs to court and seek civil judgments that will cripple gangs financially."
Gov. Rick Perry supports the bill.
In a written statement, Perry said gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate, MS-13 and Barrio Azteca have become increasingly sophisticated in their criminal activity. He said they have an influence throughout the state and across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Barrio Azteca, the largest and most active prison gang from El Paso, also has members in Juárez. It was founded in the mid-1980s to protect and unite Hispanic prison inmates, the El Paso Police Department Web site states.
In the 1990s, the gang grew and was involved in activities related to narcotics, extortion, assaults, murders, theft and intimidation, the site states. The gang also formed and continues to create alliances with street gangs.
Barrio Azteca is known to be associated with the Juárez Aztecas gang, which has been at the center of deadly prison riots at the state and municipal Cereso prisons.
El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said gang activity in the city was controlled when organized crime started to become strong in the mid-1990s.
"When it (gang activity) started raising its ugly head here in the early '90s, we jumped on it quickly and hard and heavy. We got it under control," he said. "We know who the players are, and if we don't, we're able to gather that information very quickly."
El Paso does not have a serious problem with gangs, but any bill that helps law enforcement deal with gang issues is helpful, Allen said.
"Simply, any and every avenue to keep gangs under control should be utilized," he said.
Asked whether it would be hard to tackle gangs on the Internet, Allen said, "It might in certain areas. It would have to be done with a lot of thought in place as far as the enforcement efforts."
Online gang activity started to grow in 2004 and 2005, said Rob Gallardo, a gang prevention counselor with Operation No Gangs, a school and community youth gang prevention and intervention program.
The Internet, he said, gives the gangs exposure and allows them to update information quickly. He said many street gangs post their activities, fights and gang initiations online.
"This is a real phenomenon. É A lot of activities are carried out in pictures, drug use is shown, damage on vandalism, fights are all categorized and documented," Gallardo said. "Graffiti is now out. The Internet replaced graffiti completely."
Deputy Jesse Tovar, an El Paso County Sheriff's Office spokesman, said law enforcement must be up to date on the methods gangs use to promote organized crime.
Of the bill proposed Thursday, he said, "Anything that deters criminal activity is a plus to law enforcement. However, these criminal organizations will continue to find ways to communicate or gather information for their own criminal means. A lot of established gangs already have some sort of methods online, whether on YouTube.com or on music CDs that circulate through the community."
Mexican drug cartels have used the Internet to intimidate people in Juárez and to threaten Juárez police and public officials. Web sites and e-mails have warned of bloodshed in the city, where almost 2,000 people have been killed since the start of 2008.