Today’s L.A. Times leads with a terrifying five-page story of gruesome murders across “much of the North American continent” perpetrated by a vicious multi-national gang. The LAT’s bloody stories include that of “a 17-year-old informant [who] was hacked to death [in Virginia]. She was four months pregnant and stabbed 16 times in the chest and neck.”

Meanwhile, civil rights and youth advocate experts are deeply troubled by new Congressional legislation that would create mandatory federal sentencing for gang members.

For the first time in its history, the F.B.I. has formed a nationwide task force to go after a single gang, MS-13. On Tuesday, “Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement [aka ICE] agency for the first time placed an MS-13 member on its most-wanted fugitive list.”

Against this sensational backdrop, we have Virginia Republican Randy Forbes’ “federal gang busting” that, says Alternet columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, will mandate “mandatory sentences up to 10 years, and the death penalty for some gang related crimes. Teens could be tried as adults in federal courts.”

“Civil liberties groups,” reports NewStandardNews, “are alarmed that the ambiguous language of the legislation would sweep many less serious crimes into federal jurisdiction, imposing stricter sentences than otherwise would have been mandated in juvenile or state courts.”

Why is this alarming? I asked our own Othniel — our BooTrib resident expert on juvenile justice — who wrote back to me, “Federal probation just about does not exist and these kids will never get the treatment they need in the federal system.”

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I sent Othniel links to some of the reports I was using for this story, and he also commented on this from NewStandardNews‘s “House ‘Gang’ Bill Criticized by Youth Advocates”:

“One of the most controversial provisions of the bill would grant prosecutors, in felony cases involving a legally defined “crime of violence,” the authority to charge 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults under federal law, without any opportunity for judicial review. The bill’s expanded definition of “violent crime” includes drug-related offenses that may not actually involve physical harm.”

Othniel responded to me: “Unchecked prosecutorial discretion is a recipe for disaster. Also, remember the Mandatory Sentencing guidelines referred to in the article were recently tossed by the Supreme Court in Booker.”

The preface to NewStandardNews‘s “House ‘Gang’ Bill Criticized by Youth Advocates”:

As precariously-worded “anti-gang” legislation moves through Congress, critics say its definition of “gang member,” ham-fisted national focus and conventional lock-’em-up approach are counterproductive.

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See also: ACLU Sign On Letter to Representatives Coble and Scott Urging Opposition to H.R. 1279, The Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005.


PHOTO CAPTION: A member of Mara Salvatrucha is detained in San Salvador. Salvadoran immigrants in L.A. founded the gang. (Roberto Escobar / EPA) (<a href="LA Times


We can easily sympathize with members of Congress who have been learning about the gang violence so nearby and in their own districts. MS-13 has, according to the LAT, “30,000 and 50,000 members in half a dozen countries, including up to 10,000 members in the U.S.” and is spread out across 34 states in the United States, and in five countries.

The last section of today’s LATimes lead article, “L.A. Violence Crosses the Line,” focuses on violence in Virginia:

Violence in Virginia

Dozens of MS-13 members, many with blue bandanas on their heads, gathered under a picnic shelter in the tree-lined Virginia park by the banks of the Potomac River.

They came from Maryland, Washington and Virginia and greeted each other by touching thumbs and pinkie fingers, the gang’s handshake.

Meting out discipline was apparently on the agenda, according to a law enforcement surveillance video of the meeting reviewed by The Times. Gang members jumped two attendees, knocking them to the ground and kicking them repeatedly in the head and ribs. One target of the beating had failed to back up a fellow MS-13 member in a fight and the other refused to attack a jail inmate who challenged him, investigators believe.

Such sessions, known as “misas,” or masses, occur regularly in Virginia, where MS-13 has more than 1,500 members and is the largest, most violent gang in the state.

One of the first indications of MS-13 organizing efforts in the state came in early 1994. Arlington County police caught a Los Angeles member handing out business cards on a street corner. The black card bore the man’s gang moniker, “Crazy Snoopy,” and linked him to one of the oldest MS-13 branches operating along Western Boulevard. The card gave his Virginia pager number, according to a copy obtained by The Times.

MS-13’s involvement in a recent series of high-profile murders in Virginia has thrust it into the headlines in the nation’s capital and onto the agenda of top policymakers.

The most sensational crime involved Brenda Paz, the Normandie Locos member. She arrived after the murder near Dallas, was arrested by Virginia police and became an informant. “She knew if she stayed with the gang, she was going to end up locked up or dead,” said Hunter, the attorney appointed as Paz’s legal guardian.

She was placed in a federal witness protection program, records show, but the pull of the gang proved too strong. In June 2003, she rejoined MS-13 after voluntarily leaving the program. A month later, her tattoo-covered body, slashed with knife wounds, was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River. She was 16 weeks pregnant.

The slaying was ordered because Paz was working with authorities, prosecutors allege. Four MS-13 members are on trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va., charged with her murder. All have pleaded not guilty.

The trial, and hundreds of pages of federal court records in a related murder case, offer a rare inside look at the gang. In one instance, Flores, the Normandie Locos leader imprisoned in Texas, wrote to an MS-13 member jailed in Virginia. He told Denis Rivera, a local gang leader charged in Paz’s death, that she was “singing” to authorities, according to a copy of the letter.

In another letter to Rivera, an MS-13 member in El Salvador mentioned a possible “green light,” or a murder plan, of a rival and passed on a phone number for a Virginia gang member.

Other communications underscored the defiance of some MS-13 leaders in the face of law enforcement crackdowns. In a letter to yet another gang leader, Rivera boasted about the gang’s legacy of fear and violence.

“Wherever the Mara Salvatrucha is, [we are] going to kill, control and rape again,” he wrote. “We are super crazy.”


But do we need “ham-fisted” legislation to address these terrifying problems? Michael Cutler, a Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and frequent contributor to The Counterterrorism Blog has been hammering on the need to retool ICE:

The member of MS-13 who has been posted on ICE’s most wanted list of fugitives utilizes numerous identities (I wonder how many driver’s licenses he has in different names) and is an alien who has been previously deported as an aggravated felon and is also a murder suspect. The ability to have immigration law enforcement work in conjunction with local and other federal law enforcement agencies to achieve common goals has a synergistic effect where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is an example of why we desperately need many new special agents to enforce the immigration laws from within the interior of the United States.


Warning: This next part is NOT sexy. But it’s also not impenetrable. It contains the solutions that don’t require “ham-fisted” legislation.

Last week, long before I decided to do this story, I read — with great interest — Mr. Cutler’s testimony before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims. From that testimony, ““NEW ‘DUAL MISSIONS’ OF THE IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES”:

Special agents are desperately needed to not only seek to arrest illegal aliens, but to conduct field investigations to uncover immigration fraud to restore integrity to the benefits program which has been historically plagued with high fraud rates. This is especially troubling as we wage a war on terror. The 911 Staff Report on Terrorist Travel made it clear that this dysfunctional bureaucracy aided the terrorists who wrought so much destruction upon our nation. The fact is that many of the managers of ICE appear more focused on traditional Customs-oriented investigations than they are on enforcing the Immigration and Nationality Act to safeguard our nation from terrorists and criminals who have become adept at hiding in plain sight by making use of gaping loop-holes and deficiencies in the immigration bureaucracy that go undetected by the law enforcement agency that is supposed to enforce these laws.

Here are the clinchers in Cutler’s testimony, which I’ll list with bullet points:

  • “[N]ew ICE special agents are no longer being given Spanish language training even though it has been estimated that some 80% of the illegal alien population is, in fact, Spanish speaking”

  • “I have to believe that this represents more than a simple oversight on the part of the leaders at the academy. It underscores an absolute lack of desire to enforce the critical immigration laws.”

  • “[O]ur agents should be getting additional language training as we seek to uncover aliens operating within our nation’s borders who are a threat to our well being. Strategic languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Urdu should be added to the curriculum along with Chinese, Korean and other such critical languages. Yet at present, the curriculum not only fails to mandate any foreign language training, it doesn’t even offer any foreign language training.”

  • “Identity documents are the lynchpins that hold the immigration program together, yet incredibly, while other law enforcement agencies provide in-service document training to their personnel to help them recognize altered or counterfeit identity documents, ICE does not.”

  • “At present, nearly every field office of ICE is headed by a Special Agent-in-Charge who came from the United States Customs Service and not from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

Cutler goes on about the melding of the U.S. Customs Service and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service:

The immigration laws are highly complex and require that the executives who are charged with leading the enforcement effort have a thorough understanding of the laws that they are responsible for enforcing. They should have real-world experience in investigating and aiding in the prosecution of criminal organizations that produce fraudulent documents, promote fraud schemes to circumvent the immigration laws, engage in large-scale human trafficking or the smuggling of criminal or terrorist aliens into the United States. They should also have real-world experience and understanding of the ways in which proper enforcement of the immigration laws can synergistically act as a force multiplier when ICE agents team up with law enforcement officers from other federal agencies as well as local and state police departments. The effective enforcement of immigration laws can help to cultivate informants to facilitate not only investigations into immigration law violations, but violations of laws in many other areas of concern including narcotics investigations, gang investigations and terrorism investigations.

The current lack of leadership that is experienced in immigration law enforcement, the lack of effective training and the previously examined, lack of resources have been disastrous for the enforcement of the immigration laws, thereby imperiling our nation and our people.

It is vital that there be real accountability and real leadership where immigration is concerned. While Customs and Immigration were both border enforcement agencies, the border is where their similarities begin and end.

I repeat: I know this isn’t sexy stuff. But when we have experts like Cutler who say that if we improve training and supervision for our I.C.E. agents, we can greatly improve tracking and apprehension of gangs like MS-13, we ought to listen.

Passing another “ham-fisted” piece of rights-obliterating legislation is not only window-dressing. It is corrosive to our country.

Meanwhile, experts like Cutler have already told Congress what needs to be done.