Training to Fight Transnational Gangs
A look inside efforts in the U.S. and Central America to battle gangs.
Narrator: The month of August was a particularly dangerous one in El Salvador. There were 907 murders during the month. And the year’s death toll for police officers grew to 50.
The murder rate here is about 25 a day. Officials say four out of five of those killings are gang-related.
El Salvador’s violent reality is of great interest to law enforcement agencies in the United States. Gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street have footholds in places like Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, Newark, Charlotte and Northern Virginia.
Local investigations of gang-related violence often will have links that reach back to gang leaders in El Salvador.
Grant Mann, FBI Safe Streets and Gangs Unit: There is no doubt that the problems in El Salvador have an effect on what happens in the United States. There are gang members here in El Salvador who continue to direct the operations of gang cliques in the United States, in certain cities in the United States. They can give directions about the gang organization and structure, about recruiting. And this definitely has an effect in our communities in the United States.
Narrator: Cultivating relationships between U.S. law enforcement and police in Central America is the goal of the Central American Law Enforcement Exchange, or CALEE.
Since 2009, the program co-sponsored by the FBI and the U.S. State Department has brought together law enforcement officers from U.S. cities and Central American countries where MS-13 and 18th Street operate.
During the three-week program, officers developed a better understanding of the transnational gang picture.
This year’s group included police and prosecutors from Boston, Houston, L.A., and Charlotte in the U.S, training alongside counterparts from El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize.
Though normally separated by language and hundreds of miles, the CALEE participants quickly found they share a lot in common.
Mann: As these guys are talking cases, etcetera, they really start making connections, connections that they never saw before. So someone from Boston says, you know, the guy you are talking about down in Houston, that’s a guy we’ve heard of on our case. Or that guy you guys are focusing on in prison in El Salvador, our guys are taking direction from him.
Narrator: The program included two weeks in Los Angeles and Houston, where about 40 participants got a better understanding of the gang issues there and law enforcement’s techniques for dealing with them.
In Los Angeles, participants heard from law enforcement officials, including prosecutors, who stressed the importance of their working closely with police.
In Houston, FBI agents provided tactical training—an important element for police who may receive little such training at home because of scarce resources.
The final week was spent in El Salvador, where gangs have become powerful and extremely violent.
Julian Igualada, assistant legal attaché, El Salvador: The gang problem in El Salvador is very serious. Eighty-percent of the homicides are attributed to gangs. Gang on gang fighting. Gang on gang issues. Most of the issues are territories. Territory is the gang’s way to make money. So they are fighting for that territory.
Narrator: CALEE participants visited the town of Sonsonate, in western El Salvador, where graffiti tags reveal the lines of demarcation for neighborhoods claimed by gangs.
Participants also visited a jail filled beyond capacity with gang members. The crowded facility, located next to an elementary school, helped to illustrate the scope of the problem.
Igualada: There are 851 inmates here. It’s a facility that is supposed to hold 250 inmates. But the same conditions you see here in Sonsonate are the same conditions that you see in other 21 prisons here in El Salvador.
Narrator: During their week in El Salvador, participants also saw first-hand how the FBI is working closely with local law enforcement to investigate and try to dismantle the gangs’ extensive networks.
In 2008, the FBI established the Transnational Anti-Gang task force, or TAG. FBI agents are embedded with vetted Central American police officers to work cases and gather intelligence. Since it’s inception, the TAG has provided investigators with a means to track cases and suspects across borders.
Jason Kaplan, legal attaché, El Salvador: We now have a liaison here, a resource that investigators in the United States when they get to that point where they realize that one of their principal subjects is located down here—whether he’s incarcerated or whether he’s free—they now have a resource where they can go to further that investigation.
Narrator: Punctuating the gravity of the problem—and the need to work together to find solutions—El Salvador’s top law enforcement officials each addressed the CALEE group.
The Director of El Salvador’s national police said the close collaboration with the FBI and partner agencies is a key element in his arsenal against gangs.
Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, director general, El Salvador National Police (PNC): It’s one of the most important tools that we have through which we are able to do better work in our different areas.
Narrator: For U.S. law enforcement agencies, the most important element of the three-week training was getting acquainted with their Central American counterparts, and knowing there’s a person they can call for assistance on a transnational case.
Mann: We definitely have seen cases where intelligence that is being gained from the TAG in country is being passed to our counterparts in the U.S.—our FBI agents who are working these cases and as a result they have been able to go out and investigate cases. They have been able to go out and warn people whose lives are in danger. And really they have been able to expand their capabilities when it comes to investigate these groups oversees.
I think that’s part of our goal here is to really give everyone a chance to receive this type of training, to work together, so in the future we really are facilitating better cooperation between all these law enforcement agencies. And I think ultimately that is the most important thing that we are doing here, right, is we’re working together. All these different law enforcement agencies coming together and making things happen.
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