Declaring Los Angeles the gang capital of America, U.S. crimefighters met police chiefs from five Central American countries Wednesday to co-ordinate efforts to fight cross-border gangs.
Top police officers from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Canada joined law enforcement officials from Los Angeles and other U.S. cities for the three-day conference on transnational gangs responsible for murders, drugs and weapons smuggling. Nicaragua was not represented.
“Gang violence and racially motivated hate crime, including murder and an assortment of brutal offenses, have become too common in North American and Central American cities where gang members have migrated,” said Stephen Tidwell, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Los Angeles.
FBI officials said Central America has seen a dramatic surge in gang-related crimes in recent years. El Salvador, with a population of 6.8 million, has an average of 10 homicides a day in 2006, about 70 percent of which were committed by gang members, said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.
Tidwell said gang members “bounce back and forward from one country to another” and the meeting was aimed at sharing intelligence, tools and strategies “to combat these insidious gangs which denigrate society and terrorize good people.”
Surge in violence in L.A.
There was a 14 percent surge in gang violence last year in Los Angeles, which officials have called the birthplace of modern gangs.
Los Angeles County has an estimated 88,000 gang members while the city itself has more than 400 gangs which are blamed for more than half the 478 murders last year.
Tidwell called Los Angeles “ground zero for modern gang activity” and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said the region was “unfortunately the gang capital of America.”
Many Los Angeles gangs trace their roots to Central America, starting with the Mexican Mafia in the immigration waves of the 1940s and 50s.
The civil wars of the 80s and 90s in Central America saw the rise of the Los Angeles-based Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13, which sought to protect early Salvadoran immigrants to the city. MS-13 now has an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members in the United States and tens of thousands in Central America.
Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, who is due to launch his own anti-gang plan for the city this week, said gang violence was “every bit as destabilizing to our way of life as international terrorism.”
“We can address this problem. Not eradicate it. That is not going to happen. But we can diminish its impact so that it no longer takes over our communities,” he said.