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Feds target gangs in crackdown

375 wanted gang members arrest in two weeks, 2,388 in past year

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Confiscated weapons and gang paraphernalia are displayed during a press conference Friday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bloods, Crips, Disciples and an increasingly popular street gang known as MS-13 were among the gangs targeted in a Department of Homeland Security operation over the past two weeks that yielded 375 arrests of wanted members in 23 states, the department announced Friday.

What makes Operation Community Shield different from other crackdowns is that federal authorities for the first time are using immigration and customs authorities in an attempt to dismantle what they call "transnational, violent street gangs," according to DHS.

DHS launched the operation last year after immigration officials dubbed the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, as "one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the country." (Watch DHS announce the fruits of its latest crackdown on gang violence -- 6:01)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement learned that many of the MS-13 members were foreign born -- usually from El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala -- and in the country illegally, according to a DHS news release.

ICE's inaugural crackdown in February and March 2005 netted the arrests of more than 100 MS-13 members, and two months later, ICE expanded the operation to include all street and prison gangs with foreign-born members.

The 375 arrests announced Friday bring total apprehensions during the operation to 2,388, according to DHS. About 922 of those were members of MS-13. The rest came from 238 other gangs.

Though the operation no longer discriminates among gangs, the Los Angeles, California-based MS-13 remains a priority. Just last year, FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker testified to a congressional committee that MS-13 had a significant presence in Virginia, New York, California, Texas, Oregon and Nebraska.

The group has about 10,000 "hardcore members," Swecker said, adding that MS-13 was quickly becoming more sophisticated, widespread and violent. Deporting these gang members, Swecker said, "is partially responsible for the growth of those gangs in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico."

In a news conference Friday, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff compared fighting gang violence to fighting terrorism. He added that the participation of all levels of law enforcement was necessary to fight the "scourge" of gang violence in communities across the United States.

Cooperation is key, not only because of the growing sophistication of street gangs, Chertoff said, but also because ICE agents and local police typically identify the gang members, and federal agents determine whether to use immigrations or customs laws, including money-laundering laws, to arrest them.

Many of the gang members, however, don't face criminal charges, and instead are deported after administrative immigration hearings, according to DHS.

"We are meeting their victimization of the innocent with hard-hitting enforcement actions that lead to criminal prosecutions and deportations," he said.

According to DHS, 260 of the 375 arrestees have past criminal records, and 73 face new charges ranging from drug and gun violations to re-entering the country after being deported. The others face deportation proceedings.

Dallas, Texas, had the most arrests during the latest operation, 44. San Diego, California, had 41; Miami, Florida, and Washington, D.C. had 22 each; and Raleigh, North Carolina, had 19.

First Assistant Chief David O'Neal Brown of the Dallas Police Department credited the ongoing operation with improving the violent crime rate in the city.

"Over the past year, the murder rate in the Dallas metropolitan area decreased roughly 20 percent compared to the year before," he said.

The arrests run the gamut of transnational gangs -- some well known, some obscure, some quickly making names for themselves. They include MS-13, Surenos, Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips, Armenian Power, Street Thug Criminals, Brown Pride, Asian Dragon Family, Avenue Assassins, Spanish Gangster Disciples, Big Time Killers and Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos.

The crackdown also snared 51 gang leaders, states the DHS news release.

One of the highest profile arrests came March 3, when ICE agents and U.S. marshals arrested Leobardo Villareal, a member of Surenos.

Villareal was a fugitive wanted on federal charges of murdering ICE Agent Maria Ochoa last year. In September Villareal escaped from a medical center where he was in federal custody, carjacked an automobile occupied by a mother and her children and fled, according to DHS.

He was later featured on the television show, "America's Most Wanted."

Villareal's father -- Juan Eladio Villareal-Saenza -- a convicted murderer and gang member, also was arrested during the operation on charges of re-entry after deportation.

Of the 2,388 members arrested to date, 533 have been charged criminally, while 1,855 faced administrative immigration charges. Authorities said they also seized 117 firearms.

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