WASHINGTON — More than 600 suspected gang members have been arrested in the Homeland Security Department’s latest crackdown on street gangs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Thursday.
ICE agents, along with local authorities in 179 cities, arrested 638 suspected gang members over a monthlong period in March and April.
ICE officials said 78 suspected gang members were arrested on federal charges while another 447 currently face only state charges. ICE arrested 113 others on administrative immigration charges.
More than 400 of those arrested had violent criminal histories, including seven people wanted on murder charges. ICE did not identify all those arrested or the specific charges they face.
The latest crackdown, dubbed “Project Southbound”, is part of a larger ICE initiative that started in 2005 to target street gangs with international ties. Since the effort started, ICE says it has arrest more than 33,000 suspected gang members.
Nearly three-quarters of the suspected gang members arrested in the latest operation belonged to the Surenos, or Sur 13, street gang, according to ICE.
Sur 13 originated in Southern California and has members across the country. Its members and affiliates pay tribute to the Mexican Mafia gang. In its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, the Justice Department said Sur 13 is expanding faster than any other national gang. The government said Sur 13 members are responsible for crimes including murder, extortion and drug trafficking.
The crackdown also netted several members of the ultraviolent Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang known for using machetes to hack and stab victims.
According to a 12-count racketeering indictment unsealed in federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland, in March, nine of the gang’s members are accused of crimes including murder, extorting high school students and running brothels, witness tampering and obstructing justice.
Last year the Obama administration levied financial sanctions against six leaders of the gang, which the U.S. government previously designated as an international criminal group.
MS-13 was founded more than two decades ago by immigrants fleeing El Salvador’s civil war. Its founders built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs, as they took lessons from the brutal war to the streets of Los Angeles.
MS-13 also has a strong presence in Southern California, Washington and northern Virginia, all areas with substantial Salvadoran populations, and as many 10,000 members in 46 states. The gang is also allied with several of Mexico’s warring drug cartels.