10/05/2004

Police say Immigration Crackdown has Reduced Violent Gang Crime in N.C.

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - A yearlong crackdown on immigration violations has led to a drop in gang-related violence in the Charlotte area, according to police.

More than 100 members of Charlotte street gangs have been arrested on immigration violations in the last 16 months. Most of those who were later deported are members of Mara Salvatrucha 13, a traditionally Salvadoran gang considered just a year ago to be the city's most violent.

From January 2000 until October 2003, at least 20 members of the gang were charged with murder in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

A year ago this week, more than 150 police officers and federal agents fanned out in teams across east and southwest Charlotte, arresting 53 gang members in an early morning roundup.

A deportation hearing was scheduled for each of the arrested gang members.

Since the roundup a year ago, no known MS-13 has been linked to a homicide in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Police believe gang members are getting the message.

"They are aware we will do whatever it takes to get them out of our community," said Police Sgt. Beth Boggess, who heads the gang intelligence unit. "They are aware that we will do whatever is necessary to remove them."

Gang members still commits crimes, including stealing cars, breaking into homes, and fighting with rival gangs. But it's not the violent robberies and killings of the past, police said.

"They are still here, but we don't have the problem we had a year ago," said Detective Tim Jolly, a gang investigator. "We got some of the most violent ones off the street."

At least one gang member arrested in the original roundup and then deported has returned to Charlotte and been arrested again, Jolly said.

Last year, at least 200 MS-13s were living in the Charlotte area, police said. Boggess would not say how the deportation effort has affected the gang's numbers.

Since 2001, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg police started a gang database, they have documented more than 800 gang members.

Latino gang members are among the hardest to keep track of, police say, because many are here illegally. That makes it hard to find previous addresses and relatives, or even someone's real name.

Boggess said officers continue to identify more MS-13 members. But, she added, patrol officers are better trained, making it hard to tell whether the gang is growing or police are doing a better job spotting members.

Wayne Cooper, honorary Mexican consul, said his organization supports law enforcement's efforts and has not received a single complaint about anyone being unfairly targeted in the gang initiative.

"These people prey on the Latinos. They aren't preying on the gringos," he said. "That's very harmful to our community. We are very much supportive."

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