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Deportation the latest weapon against gang violence

WASHINGTON—Federal immigration officials and local police have tightened the net on violent gangs, making 2,388 arrests in the past year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday.

Through the year-old Operation Community Shield, authorities said they're now deporting suspects they can't jail. If gang members evade criminal charges, officials can slap them with immigration offenses if they're in the country illegally, giving authorities a two-pronged approach to rid communities of troublemakers.

"In much the same way that we have connected the dots in the war against terror, we are now connecting the dots in the war against gang violence," Chertoff said. "This is the way we protect communities that have been terrorized for too long by gang violence."

The operation compiled "wanted" lists using data from local authorities and immigration databases to identify gang members with outstanding warrants or past criminal or immigration violations. Of the arrests, 533 were charged with crimes, and the remaining 1,855—almost 80 percent—were picked up on immigration charges.

The added tool beefs up local authorities' ability to crack down on members of "transnational gangs," gangs that span more than one country, officials said. One of the biggest and most violent is the Central American Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Many of its members are in the United States illegally or have prior criminal convictions, according to officials.

The federal-local operation patches a blind spot, Chertoff said, in which local police were arresting people without knowing they were wanted on immigration charges. The same went for federal agents who were nabbing immigration violators without knowing they were wanted for violent crimes. Most of the operation's arrests will result in deportation because the majority of those taken into custody are illegal immigrants, officials added.

Officials are "sending a clear message to gang members that we intend to deal strongly and forcefully with you if you come into our country and you break our laws," said Julie Myers, the assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In one operation in the last month, authorities rounded up 44 people in Dallas, which has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. First Assistant Police Chief David Brown said that the murder rate in Dallas dropped 20 percent in 2005.

"This was the result of Operation Community Shield's efforts in reducing our violent crime," Brown said. There have been 149 gang-related arrests in Dallas since the program's start in February 2005. Brown estimated that about 30 to 40 percent of those arrests were made based on immigration intelligence alone.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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