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ICE Targets Gang Members

Federal Agents Cracking Down on Drug and Human Trafficking Operations


Homeland Security Investigations is essentially a detective division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that is charged with investigating a wide range of illegal activities, both domestic and international.

HSI investigates immigration crime, human rights violations and human smuggling, smuggling of narcotics, weapons and other types of contraband, financial crimes, cyber crime and export enforcement issues, according to ICE. The agency’s special agents conduct investigations aimed at protecting critical infrastructure industries that are vulnerable to sabotage, attack or exploitation.

One of HSI’s major focuses is international gang activity. In April 2012, HSI officials announced the arrests of 637 gang members and associates from 168 different gangs across the country. The HSI-led operation called “Project Nefarious” made arrests in 150 U.S. cities and Honduras, targeting transnational street gangs, prison gangs and outlaw motorcycle gangs.

According to government officials, most of the gangs were involved in illegal drugs, human trafficking and firearms offenses. Almost half of those arrested had ties to the Mexican cartels.

“The results of this targeted enforcement operation underscore ICE’s ongoing commitment and focus on the arrest and removal of convicted criminal aliens and those that game our nation’s immigration system,” said ICE Director John Morton. “These are not people we want roaming our streets.”

Immigrant advocates have criticized ICE for focusing too much on removing undocumented workers with no offenses other than immigration violations, rather than going after violent offenders. In August 2011, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government was shifting its enforcement emphasis and would concentrate on arresting illegal immigrants with felony criminal records and “flagrant violations.”

In Project Nefarious, HSI agents collaborated with 148 federal, state, local and international law enforcement officials to arrest individuals linked to 28 gangs involved in trafficking. More than 40% of the arrests were gang members the government believes were involved in trafficking and smuggling operations.

Of the 637 arrests, 290 were foreign nationals and at least 200 had violent criminal histories. Most of those arrested were U.S. citizens.

“The goal of Project Nefarious was to identify, locate, arrest, prosecute and remove gang members and associates affiliated with human smuggling and trafficking organizations,” said James Dinkins, HSI executive associate director. “By ridding our streets of 637 gang members and associates, we are putting a dent in the violence these transnational criminals bring to our communities.”

Project Nefarious began in February 2012. On Feb. 15, 2012, ICE agent Jaime Zapata, 32, was killed when members of Los Zetas drug cartel forced his vehicle off a Mexican highway and shot him five times. Zapata’s partner, Victor Avila, was wounded in the leg but survived.

The Mexican government does not permit U.S. agents to carry arms, so the two men could do little to defend themselves. Shortly after the shooting, the Mexican army arrested eight Zetas and charged them in the attack.

HSI began an Operation Community Shield initiative in 2005. Let by HSI’s National Gang Unit, the Community Shield initiative has arrested roughly 26,000 accused gang members and associates. Almost 40% of those have had violent criminal records.

The agency says Community Shield has led to the arrests of 313 gang leaders as of April 2012, and 3,910 were MS-13 gang members or associates. HSI has seized more than 3,000 firearms and illegal drugs with a street value of multi-millions.

In addition criminal investigations, HSI oversees the agency's international affairs operations and intelligence functions, according to ICE. HSI consists of more than 10,000 employees, consisting of 6,700 special agents, who are assigned to more than 200 cities throughout the U.S. and 47 countries around the world.

ICE has a toll-free 24-hour hotline (1-866-347-2423) to report suspected gang activity. In February 2012, DHS created a public advocate position to handle complaints about ICE deportations.

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