Home News Speeches Combating the Gangs of L.A. and Beyond
  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce
  • Los Angeles, California
  • January 18, 2007

Good afternoon. It's great to be here. It is always refreshing to visit Los Angeles. I am reminded of how they characterize cities: in Boston, the first thing people ask you is who your family is. In New York, how high your rent is. In Washington, what your job is. And in Los Angeles, who your agent is.

I have one of the better answers to that question. The FBI has over 12,000 agents worldwide and over 700 in Los Angeles. They work hard to protect all of us. And they do an outstanding job.

As you know, our highest priority over the past five and a half years has been defending America from terrorism. From the Millennium bombing plot, to the Library Tower plot, to the arrests in 2005 of individuals who planned to attack synagogues and military recruiting centers, Los Angeles is no stranger to the threat of terrorism. It is part of your daily reality.

But I am not here to talk about terrorism. I am here to talk about another grave threat to Los Angeles—the daily reality of gang violence.

For the first time in many years, we are beginning to see a rise in violent crime in cities across America.

Here in Los Angeles, overall crime actually decreased for the fifth consecutive year. Yet at the same time, gang crime increased in 2006. This pattern is not unique to Los Angeles—it is part of a clear national trend.

For better or worse, this is not new territory. Those of us who are bent and bowed enough to earn the designation "baby boomer" remember a rise in violent crime during the 1970s and 1980s. We almost lost several of our large cities as economic and civic centers of American life.

But law enforcement came together with new resolve, resources, and tactics, which brought about a 15 year decline in violent crime.

Law enforcement has risen to the challenge before—and will do so again. But there is no silver bullet or miracle cure.

Today, I want to give you an overview of the national gang problem. Then, I want to tell you how the FBI is working with state and local law enforcement to tackle it. And finally, I want to discuss how law enforcement can move beyond its traditional approach to combating gangs that are increasingly non-traditional.

Gang violence has become a part of the daily lives of teachers and taxi drivers, police officers and pastors, parents and children. In too many neighborhoods, too many young people are recruited into gangs. They fall into a life of crime, drugs, and violence. They shoot each other, with no regard to the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Los Angeles is ground zero for modern gang activity. Many gangs were born here, a generation ago-the Bloods and the Crips, MS-13, and 18th Street. And for every highly organized gang enterprise, there are hundreds of local gangs wreaking havoc on street corners and in neighborhoods.

Modern gangs are more diverse, more dispersed, and more dangerous.

There is no "typical" gang. Some are comprised of just three or four individuals whose sole ambition is to control drug sales on their corner. Others have hi-tech hierarchies and maintain their own websites. One gang may be robbing a bank for extra spending money, while five blocks down, another gang may be committing murder for a criminal enterprise being run out of a prison.

Gangs are no longer limited to Los Angeles. Like a cancer, gangs are spreading to communities across America. For example, MS-13 was born in Los Angeles, but has spread across 33 states and four foreign countries.

There are now over 30,000 gangs across America, and over 800,000 gang members.

Here in Los Angeles, the ratio of gang members to police officers is overwhelming. There are no more experienced officers than the Los Angeles police and sheriffs' deputies when it comes to gangs. But like all law enforcement, they are constrained by limitations of personnel, time, and resources.

That's where the FBI can help. We can combine our strengths with those of state and local law enforcement to tackle gangs as a team.

One can picture the gang problem as a pyramid. The base is primarily made up of the unsophisticated, loosely organized gangs. In the middle of the pyramid are more structured gangs. And at the top is a relatively small number of highly sophisticated gangs that are involved in organized criminal activity.

These are the groups the FBI has traditionally looked for. Our strategy has been to imprison, and thereby eliminate, the leadership of gang enterprises.

Let me give you an example. Back in 1997, police officers in Northern California were investigating a local street gang. As they drilled deeper, it became clear it was no ordinary neighborhood crew. Instead, all signs pointed toward Nuestra Familia, one of the most powerful street and prison gangs in Northern California.

Because the case was so complex, the police and the FBI joined forces. I was the U.S. Attorney at the time, and we all worked as a team, conducting an in-depth investigation. We uncovered a vast criminal conspiracy that led all the way back to Nuestra Familia leaders, most of whom were already incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison.

These leaders were directing the operations of the gang from behind bars. They monitored drug sales so they could collect "taxes" from members and even authorized murders-all from within their cells.

In 2001, 22 members and associates of Nuestra Familia, including its top leaders, were indicted on federal racketeering and other charges. This investigation spawned dozens of other investigations and resulted in over 75 convictions.

Taking out the hierarchy of a highly structured gang such as Nuestra Familia can cripple the entire gang's activities. It can reduce, or even eliminate, that gang's influence for a period of time.

Go back to the "gang pyramid" for a moment. The FBI's traditional approach has been to identify gangs by working from the bottom up, but dismantle them by working from the top down.

But given the scope of gang activity throughout America, it has become clear that this traditional approach is only part of the solution to a complex violent crime problem.

As violent crime statistics are rising, we in the FBI are asking ourselves: How can we use our relatively limited resources to maximize our impact on violent crime? What does a police chief in a community with rising violent crime need from the FBI to help reverse the trend? Simply put, what more can we do to help?

We begin with three assets that the FBI brings to the table: partnerships, intelligence, and federal laws.

First, partnerships. Gangs can easily cross jurisdictions; so must law enforcement. The most powerful response is a joint response. That's why the FBI has 131 Violent Gang Task Forces across the country. FBI agents work in lock-step with police on the street, sharing information and investigating cases together. Four of those task forces are based in the Los Angeles area.

In 2004, we formed the MS-13 National Gang Task Force. This Task Force can see connections that might only be visible from the 30,000-foot perspective and can help direct and coordinate investigations.

For example, in 2005, the gang task force in Los Angeles investigated and indicted three alleged MS-13 leaders on federal drug distribution charges. Those local arrests were the catalyst for an international gang sweep coordinated by the MS-13 National Gang Task Force. More than 650 gang members were arrested in 12 states and in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

As this case demonstrates, intelligence goes hand in hand with partnerships. One good piece of intelligence—whether it is a phone number, a name, or an ATM receipt—can be the breakthrough we need to make a vital connection or crack a case.

Much of the gang intelligence the FBI collects comes from officers on the street, who know their communities inside and out. In return, the FBI disseminates gang intelligence to our state and local partners. One way we do this is through the National Gang Intelligence Center, which serves as a collection and distribution point for gang information. Our goal is to get the right information to the right people at the right time.

Along with partnerships and intelligence, the FBI's third weapon is federal statutes. Working together, we can bring gang cases to federal court, where sentences are longer. Also, federal asset forfeiture laws allow us to seize money, property, and other assets from convicted gang members.

Taking apart a gang is like demolishing a building. Hacking away at individual walls and beams only does so much. But using federal drug and racketeering statutes is akin to dynamiting the foundation. Once the gang's leadership infrastructure implodes, all members are weakened. It becomes difficult for the group to operate. Eventually it crumbles.

Partnerships, intelligence, and federal law. All three are interconnected, and all three are vital elements in our formula for combating gang violence. This formula has produced success stories in cities plagued by gang violence, from Chicago to New York, and from San Antonio to San Diego. In 2006 alone, Safe Streets Task Force investigations led to nearly 2,700 federal indictments and 2,200 convictions.

Many of you may be wondering how this formula works in practice. Let me give you a few recent examples.

You might have read about one of them in last month's issue of Los Angeles Magazine, which profiled the city's "Influentials." A leader of the Mexican Mafia named Ruben Castro made the list. Actually, he shared the page with Chief Bratton...although, Chief, your picture is bigger!

Ruben Castro has been serving a life sentence in Colorado's Supermax prison since 1997-yet he found a way to direct the drug operations of two factions of the 18th Street gang.

After an intense investigation by the Los Angeles gang task force, Castro and 17 others were indicted on federal racketeering and narcotics charges. And in the meantime, intelligence gathered during the investigation helped local police clear a number of homicides. It was a substantial blow to the 18th Street gang.

As another example, in early 2004 the FBI and LAPD began investigating the Black P-Stone Bloods, a violent gang that terrorized the Baldwin Village area of Los Angeles. The Black P-Stones were responsible for over 20 homicides. In November 2005, the task force indicted 18 members of the gang, including many of its leaders, on federal narcotics charges.

And as we so often see, the investigation in Baldwin Village had a ripple effect in the neighborhood. Once law enforcement leveled the gang's leadership, the number of homicides in Baldwin Village in 2006 was cut in half.

But any homicide is one too many. And solving half the problem still leaves the other half. Last fall, in that same neighborhood, 3-year old Kaitlyn Avila was intentionally shot at point blank range by a 17-year old who mistakenly believed Kaitlyn's father was a member of a rival gang.

Stories such as Kaitlyn's are a painful reminder of the shortcomings of our efforts. We took down the leaders of the Black P-Stones, yet gang members on the street still commit acts of violence. This means the FBI's strategy of decapitating the leadership of organized gangs must be a starting point, not an ending point.

The diversity and danger of today's gangs demands that the FBI and state and local law enforcement enhance our efforts to defeat gangs.

First, to reinforce our partnerships, we will all need additional resources. The FBI's goal is to substantially increase our gang task forces. More task forces will allow us to provide more resources to our state and local partners.

Second, the FBI will continue to improve its criminal intelligence efforts. As our counterterrorism mission has taught us, we are concerned with prevention, not just prosecution after the fact. Just as in counterterrorism, in order to prevent crime, we must understand the full range of threats in any territory—not just individual criminals or gangs that we have traditionally targeted.

To that end, the FBI established field intelligence groups in every field office. Their primary focus has been assessing terrorist threats, but each field intelligence group will also provide detailed assessments of criminal threats in their areas.

Third, our task forces should deploy a range of emerging technologies to support their investigations. For example, the FBI's Philadelphia office designed a program that integrates data ranging from shootings to bench warrants and from visa overstays to informants. It then displays the data on a map, creating a geographical profile of crimes and criminals. This allows investigators to see criminal threats, to spot areas where they need to improve their intelligence collection, and to target their resources accordingly.

Another technology can immediately identify the sound and location of a gunshot, enabling a swifter response from law enforcement.

And as gangs grow more technologically sophisticated, it is imperative for the FBI to provide teams of experts to support local efforts to intercept the wireless communications of gang members.

Finally, we must continue to find creative ways to leverage our federal criminal statutes. Whether that means applying stiffer federal sentences to encourage gang members to cooperate with investigators, or providing more protection to witnesses and their families, we know we need to do more.

Gang crime may be part of our reality today, but law enforcement can change that reality tomorrow. We in the FBI are committed to working with our partners in state and law enforcement to meet this challenge.

This past November, the Santa Ana Gang Task Force conducted a take-down of the Townsend Street Gang, which controlled a 16-block neighborhood. For years, the community had been plagued by drugs, shootings, and homicides. Families had become prisoners in their own homes. Gang members were savvy to law enforcement.

Working alone, it was difficult for the Santa Ana police to make headway.

But working together, the task force was able to use federal statutes to indict the top leaders of the Townsend Street Gang. As officers led the subjects away in handcuffs, residents unbolted their doors, stepped outside, and cheered.

One resident thanked the task force officers, saying, "There are many good people here. Thank you for taking away the ones who cause trouble."

These are the moments that keep us going. These are the cases that give us hope. These are the communities we are fighting for.

Fighting crime is deeply rooted in the FBI's heritage. Since its inception nearly a century ago, the FBI has always stood shoulder to shoulder with police and sheriffs to combat threats-from gangsters to organized crime syndicates to terrorists. Standing together, we are more formidable than any adversary.

In our post-September 11 world, our responsibilities are greater than ever. But so is our resolve.

By standing together, we have made historic strides to lower crime rates across America. And by standing together, we will do so again.

 
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