By Alicia A. Caldwell
WASHINGTON — More than 600 suspected gang members have been arrested in the Homeland Security Department's largest crackdown on street gangs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Thursday.
ICE agents, along with local authorities in 179 cities, arrested 638 suspected gang members over a monthlong period in March and April.
ICE said 78 suspected gang members were arrested on federal charges while 447 others currently face only state charges. ICE arrested 113 others on administrative immigration charges.
More than 400 of those arrested had violent criminal histories, including seven people wanted on murder charges. ICE did not identify all those arrested or the charges they face.
"These are bad people with bad motives from bad organizations," said Thomas Winkowski, the principal deputy assistant secretary for ICE.
Arrests were made across the country, including in Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Maryland and New Mexico.
The latest crackdown, dubbed "Project Southbound," is part of a larger initiative started in 2005 to target street gangs with international ties. Since the effort, ICE says it has arrested more than 33,000 suspected gang members.
Winkowski said nearly three-quarters of the suspected gang members arrested in the latest operation belonged to the Surenos, or Sur 13, street gangs.
The Surenos, an umbrella group of street gangs with ties to Latin America that includes gangs such as the ultraviolent Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, originated in Southern California and has members across the country. Its members and affiliates are considered "foot soldiers" for the Mexican Mafia criminal organization, Winkowski said.
In its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, the Justice Department said the Sur 13 gangs are expanding faster than any other national gang. The government said Sur 13 members are responsible for crimes that include murder, extortion and drug trafficking.
The crackdown also included several members of MS-13, the Salvadoran gang known for using machetes to hack and stab victims.
According to a 12-count racketeering indictment unsealed in March in federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland, nine of the gang's members are accused of crimes including murder, extorting high school students, running brothels, witness tampering and obstructing justice. At least three MS-13 members charged in the indictment were already in jail during the latest gang roundup.
Last year the Obama administration levied financial sanctions against six leaders of the gang, which the U.S. government previously designated as an international criminal group.
MS-13 was founded more than two decades ago by immigrants fleeing El Salvador's civil war. Its founders built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs, as they took lessons from the brutal war to the streets of Los Angeles.
MS-13 also has a strong presence in Southern California, Washington and Northern Virginia, all areas with substantial Salvadoran populations, and as many 10,000 members in 46 states. The gang is also allied with several of Mexico's warring drug cartels.
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press