Best Defense

The war at home: the spread of violent gangs

Here is a report from my CNAS colleague Jennifer Bernal-Garcia, who is working with Bob Killebrew on the merger of drug gangs and terrorism, about a meeting they held recently with law enforcement experts on gang violence: By Jennifer Bernal Best Defense Drugs & Crime Correspondent Cops are the first line of defense against gangs, ...

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

Here is a report from my CNAS colleague Jennifer Bernal-Garcia, who is working with Bob Killebrew on the merger of drug gangs and terrorism, about a meeting they held recently with law enforcement experts on gang violence:

By Jennifer Bernal

Best Defense Drugs & Crime Correspondent

Cops are the first line of defense against gangs, and they have a pretty good understanding of the issue. Talking with them yields a pretty grim assessment: There is a huge gang problem in the United States. Our cops in attendance estimated that the U.S. might have up to 1 million gang members, although the problem is often underreported both because it is difficult to detect and because of local politicians’ incentives to downplay crime figures in their areas. The gang problem is inherently tied in to broader regional criminal trends. The extensiveness of drug trafficking south of the border and the degree to which cartels violently contest state authority is well acknowledged. There is nonetheless a common misperception that drug networks disintegrate when you cross the border into the U.S. They don’t. Gangs — mostly youth gangs — step in to domestically distribute the drugs that cartels traffic in.

Gangs are evolving groups that engage in opportunistic relationships, and no single typology defines them. Currently, the most dangerous gangs at the national level are the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street, but there are also others. Like the Mexican Mafia, present in various states but particularly all-powerful in the prisons of Southern California. Gangs share operating channels with foreign groups like La Familia, the target of Operation Coronado earlier this year, or the infamous Zetas, whose special-operations background allows them to employ hyper-sophisticated technology.

These groups all draw strength from exploitation of financial channels, immigrant populations that stigma and a broken immigration system disincentivize from cooperating with the police, and a dysfunctional prison system that provides "power houses" of criminal activity instead of acting as a deterrent. That, and the fact that kids think it’s so cool to become a gangster — until they’re trapped in a vicious cycle of violence.

While many initiatives are doubtless needed to prevent individuals from joining gangs (both at the local and federal levels), our conversation presented some highlights on how to dismantle existing networks. It is a difficult task given the complexity of the groups described above and the fact that law enforcement is evidence-based, while countering futures threats needs to be more intelligence-led. So how do you turn reactive agencies into proactive ones?

Organizations can address this issue internally. It turns out the FBI, for one, is undergoing a significant reorientation, recruiting and empowering teams of analysts to look at trends and future projections. (This stands in stark opposition to the Bureau’s previous practice of promoting its file clerks to such positions.) The hurdle can also be overcome through inter-agency collaboration. Three main areas of opportunity are currently underexploited.

The first possibility is developing a national interoperable database for law enforcement. Agencies currently operate on different systems for security reasons, making information sharing difficult and often hindering field agents’ operations. A common database would increase efficiency and help institutionalize data sharing in a system currently too reliant on interpersonal relationships.

The second one is fusion centers, instituted after 9/11 to overcome information-sharing barriers, and particularly crucial in the absence of common database systems. Because DHS provided funding for whoever wanted to build a one, fusion centers grew somewhat organically. As a result, some states have multiple fusion centers, while others have none. Some fusion centers are much more oriented toward particular types of criminal activity than others. And often, various centers within a same jurisdiction will not even talk to one another. In sum, many fusion centers are now redundant and over bureaucratized – precisely what they were created to avoid. Standardizing them would greatly help get important information to agents on the ground, while enabling them to conduct in-depth analysis would generate useful forecasts.

The third measure is interagency task forces, which have a track record of successfully dismantling particular criminal organizations. The Arellano Felix Organization Task Force, based out of San Diego, is an example of multi-agency effort that crippled one of Mexico’s main drug cartels over several years, and it provides a useful model to follow.

In addition to shifting the perspective of law enforcement, other necessary measures voiced were targeting money flows, facilitating cooperation with law enforcement agencies of foreign countries (while being careful of vetting for corruption), and prison reform. Each of these measures, of course, warrants its own separate and lengthy discussion.

What else is necessary? How can the U.S. government act strategically against organized crime instead of just "throwing darts at the wall"?

Tom’s related prediction: The Mexican drug wars will get the attention of Americans in a big way in 2010, perhaps as the violence spills over into the United States. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
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