(Immigration and Customs Enforcement photo)

Broad Collaboration Critical to More Than 100 MS-13 Investigations, HSI Foreign Ops Director Says

Homeland Security Investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement has more than 100 open investigations targeting the Salvadoran gang MS-13 and its members throughout the United States and abroad, a department official told Congress.

Raymond Villanueva, the assistant director for International Operations at HIS, recently testified before a hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence about transnational gangs and the importance of collaboration among law enforcement entities, especially in Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“Without out information sharing and partnering with our federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement partners, HSI would not be nearly as successful at battling MS-13 and other gangs,” he said.

Since inception, Villanueva said, HSI and partner agencies have made over 60,000 criminal and administrative arrests of gang leaders, members and associates, including more than 7,900 MS-13s.

Project New Dawn, a six-week ICE operation in March-April last year, resulted in 1,378 arrests with a focus on Newark, N.J., Washington, D.C., San Diego and San Antonio.

Steve Richardson, assistant director for the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, told the committee that the Bureau “operates and provides oversight” to 169 task forces targeting violent gangs, with an average of about 5,100 arrests of violent criminal gang members annually and more than 2,000 firearms seizures in each of the past two years.

“Although vetting and possible arrest of individuals at the border is primarily a function of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI makes every effort to gather and share intelligence on a timely basis related to the movement and recruitment of gang members prior to and upon entry into the United States,” Richardson said.

“Information sharing is critical to fulfilling this responsibility and the FBI is dedicated to improving communication with our partners,” he added. “Please know we will continue to direct tremendous resources and effort to targeting, investigating, prosecuting and dismantling these transnational criminal gangs.”

Richard H. Glenn, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in the State Department, stressed three fronts for countering transnational gangs: “First, through regional coordination and information sharing through vetted and specialized units; number two, community anti-gang efforts; and third, through institutional reform and capacity building of our foreign partners.”

“We support 56 specialized units throughout Central America, including FBI’s TAG units and ICE’s TCIUs. In 2016 alone the Northern Triangle and the vetted units that we support made 3,116 arrests and denied more than $200 million in revenue to criminal organizations,” Glenn testified. “Because gangs are transnational I cannot overstate the importance of strong regional coordination. We must be nimble and INL continually evolves its approach.”

The Border Immigration and Coordination Center created last May by INL and DHS to unite Salvadoran and American law enforcement efforts has so far identified “240 MS-13 members not previously known to U.S. law enforcement, 46 not previously known to Salvadoran authorities and 37 Salvadoran human smugglers and facilitators,” Glenn said.

INL is working to expand coordination centers to work with Guatemala, Honduran and Mexican authorities.

“We recognize, however, improving operational coordination and information sharing is not enough. Citizens need to have the trust and confidence in police to report crimes and police need that information to successfully crack down on gang activity,” Glenn continued. “In Central America, INL is strengthening local law enforcement’s capacity to connect with communities and address gang violence by implementing violence prevention programs in high crime areas, many of which have seen homicide rates plunge between 40 percent and 73 percent in 2015.”

His bureau’s third line of effort “supports building strong institutions.”

“Arresting gang members is only effective if justice institutions can prosecute, convict and incarcerate criminals,” added Glenn. “INL and our interagency partners enhance the capacity of justice institutions, including attorney generals to introduce legal reforms, mitigate gang violence and combat corruption.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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