updated 3/10/2006 8:54:36 PM ET 2006-03-11T01:54:36

Some 375 gang members have been arrested in 24 states and the District of Columbia over the past two weeks as part of a yearlong operation targeting gangs with criminal immigrant members, the Homeland Security Department said Friday.

The arrests bring to 2,388 the number of gang members apprehended through Operation Community Shield, which combines local law enforcement with federal immigration forces. Of those arrested, 922 were members of Mara Salvatrucha gangs, which have ties to Central America.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that previously local law enforcement might arrest gang members and not be aware they also had immigration violations that could be used “to incapacitate violent criminals.” Meanwhile, immigration officials would arrest gang members and not know they were wanted for serious criminal offenses.

“In much the way we have connected the dots against the war on terror, we are now connecting the dots against gang violence,” Chertoff said.

Chertoff said none of the gang members was identified as having ties to al-Qaida, but more than 260 of those arrested in the last two weeks have committed crimes like rape, murder and assault and brought drugs and weapons into neighborhoods. Of those arrested during the past year, 533 were charged with crimes and 1,855 with immigration violations.

Those in the country illegally will be deported after serving any sentences, officials said.

'A clear message to gang members'
Julie Myers, assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said: “With Operation Community Shield, ICE is sending a clear message to gang members that ICE intends to deal strongly and forcefully with you if you come into our country and break our laws.”

When the operation began, its purpose was to target members of Mara Salvatrucha. But as the operation progressed, officials expanded it to other gangs in various communities.

In the two-week operation that began Feb. 24, law enforcement arrested 44 gang members in Dallas; 41 in San Diego; 22 in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area; 22 in Miami; and 19 in Raleigh, N.C.

Gang members were arrested in these states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

Federal officials have identified 5,000 Mara Salvatrucha gang members in a database, but the number of gang members in the country is unknown, making it difficult to determine the impact the arrests have had on its membership.

Crime drop reported
However, David Brown, a Dallas assistant police chief who attended the Washington news conference, said the 149 arrests in his city since Operation Community Shield began had contributed to a 20 percent drop in the city’s murder rate.

Brown said local communities are increasingly sharing information about gang members, particularly those who are foreign-born, because many of the gang members move between cities.

ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said the cost of the operation for a year was not available because it involves different aspects of the agency’s budget.

Myers said Citizenship and Immigration Services assisted by flagging for ICE those gang members who had applied for immigration benefits.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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