As the LAPD cracks down on the city’s most violent street gangs, federal and county officials have launched their own campaigns to apprehend and deport gangsters who are in the county illegally. For the first time, federal immigration officers are tracking incarcerated gang members, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is creating a database of gang members who are in the U.S. illegally. The FBI is also strengthening its ties to international police agencies and hopes to create a gang intelligence center in El Salvador. “We want to connect the dots the same way we have been doing with counterterrorism,” said Robert Loosle, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “Up until now, there hasn’t been the focus needed, and what we are trying to do is consolidate information-collection and -sharing efforts so that we can better address violent crime committed by gangs. Given concerns about illegal immigrants who are gang members, some groups have called for revocation of Special Order 40, the Los Angeles Police Department policy that prohibits officers from asking a suspect’s immigration status. But officials say the policy – implemented nearly three decades ago to win the trust of witnesses in heavily immigrant communities – is still a necessary part of the city’s crime-fighting efforts. “Without it, victims of crime would be reluctant to come forward,” said Lt. Paul Vernon, an LAPD spokesman. “This never precluded officers from arresting criminals and does not today.” But others say using federal immigration laws to deport gang members could help solve the city’s chronic gang problem. “If you can’t inquire into somebody’s legal status, how are you going to combat these gangs coming out of Mexico and Central America?” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group that sued the LAPD last year challenging Special Order 40. In the pending lawsuit, the group maintains that the LAPD is spending taxpayer money to enforce a harmful policy. It cites a case in which officers were prevented from asking the immigration status of a Mexican national motorist, who later committed two robberies and tried to rape a woman in front of her 5-year-old son. “There is an antagonism to federal immigration laws by city and police officials and (Special Order 40) is a way to undermine them,” Fitton said. But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton – who in February unveiled an aggressive anti-gang plan that included naming the city’s most sought-after groups and their members – said they will stand by the order. “The mayor agrees with Chief Bratton and every police chief before him that requiring our police officers to double as immigration agents will result in fewer arrests, prosecutions and convictions,” said Matt Szabo, a Villaraigosa spokesman. From February 2005 through January, immigration officials say, more than 1,000 gang member suspects were deported from California as part of a nationwide effort to combat gangs. “One of the most significant threats to this region and across the country is the threat of gang violence,” said Jim Hayes, L.A. field office director with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “We want to know who in the jails are members of street gangs.” ICE has doubled the number of agents working in the Los Angeles County jail system since last year, and in February began identifying illegal immigrants who are gang members. During the first month of the effort, 59 of 290 illegal immigrants were classified as gang members. “Our goal is to see that everyone that we identify is removed,” Hayes said. Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees the jails, said the immigration process is an important crime-fighting tool. “It’s important to recognize there’s a difference between an illegal immigrant and an illegal immigrant who commits a crime,” Baca said. “We believe an illegal immigrant who is a gang member should be deported.” Identifying gangsters Up until now, law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to estimate how many gang members are illegal immigrants. But, like the LAPD’s decision to publicly identify the city’s gangs, that philosophy is being tested. “It’s a matter of real concern,” said Bruce Riordan, director of anti-gang programs and operations for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. “There is a significant percentage of gang members – and it’s hard to quantify – that are illegal aliens. Even more importantly, there is a substantial number of hard-core gang members with prior felonies that have really committed their lives to the criminal activity of gangs.” Of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gang members targeted by court injunctions filed by the city, Riordan estimates as many as half could be illegal immigrants. Gang experts say those numbers are far too high, but concede that immigrants and gangs are intertwined. Many of the city’s oldest Latino gangs trace their roots to migrant workers or immigrants who sought protection. In immigrant hubs like New York City, the Italian Mafia flourished. In Los Angeles, the center of gang culture, immigrants from Armenia to Russia have created their own criminal organizations. Sense of belonging And modern gangs like 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha have helped create a cross-national gang with its own culture and identity that provides many immigrants with a sense of belonging. “Being an undocumented or newly arrived immigrant is an extra risk factor,” said Susan Cruz, director of Sin Fronteras, a gang-rehabilitation group that works in juvenile jails and helps illegal immigrants facing deportation. “A lot of this has to do with economics.” Cruz, herself a former gang member, said as the wave of Central American immigration has ebbed, so, too, have the gang ranks of illegal immigrants. Now, she says, many immigrants – fearful of their status – are moving away from gangs. “Yes, you do see quite a few that are undocumented. It’s because they have no other recourse,” she said. “Gangs will exist as long as society doesn’t do its job. But this is really just a campaign of fear. It’s timely now because there is an anti-immigrant sentiment.” Law enforcement officials say some gangs, such as the recently dismantled Fifth and Hill gang downtown, continue to recruit immigrants heavily. At least half of the more than three dozen Fifth and Hill gang members arrested last month were Mexican nationals, police said, and many of the leaders used day laborers to run drugs. “The newly arrived immigrants are not coming here as full-fledged gang members,” Vernon said. “They become gang members once they are here.” The majority are first- and second-generation immigrants, he said. And other immigrants tend to be their victims. “Is there a disproportionate number of immigrant youth that join gangs? It may be higher than the general population,” said Tom Ward, a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California and an expert on gangs with Central American ties. Poverty, dysfunctional families and cultural isolation drive teens to gangs, he said. For immigrants with strong familial ties, the economic pressure of living in the U.S. often keeps them close to their families rather than straying into gangs. Their presence in gangs is merely a reflection of demographics in L.A., which has the largest concentration of illegal immigrants in the country, officials said. But deporting illegal-immigrant gang members – many who return multiple times – is a short-sighted solution, he said. “It doesn’t get at root causes of why they get in gangs.” [email protected] (818) 713-3741160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “Part of that is determining who is part of those gangs,” he said. “As a result, we are looking at deportees – where they are from, how they got here and what their connections are in the U.S.” The law enforcement efforts come as the Los Angeles Police Department launches its own coordinated effort to crack down on an estimated 40,000 gang members. Violent gang crime increased 14 percent citywide last year, and more than 40 percent in the San Fernando Valley. Although law enforcement officials struggle to quantify the number of illegal immigrants who are gang members, some say nearly half of some gangs – including Mara Salvatrucha, one of the city’s most violent – could be in the U.S. illegally. Gang experts say there are no studies to corroborate the figures, although they estimate that the number is closer to 10 percent. Ask suspect’s status?