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Police In Los Angeles Crack Down On MS-13 Gang Members

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On Wednesday, LA police arrested nearly two dozen members of the feared MS-13 gang in a series of early morning raids, the product of a two-year-long racketeering investigation. You may have heard a lot recently about MS-13. President Trump has focused quite a bit of attention on the group, linking it to crime and illegal immigration. Here to tell us more about the raids and MS-13 is Richard Winton. He's a veteran crime reporter for the LA Times, and he joins me from their studios.

RICHARD WINTON: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what can you tell us about the scale of the raids? Were these high-level members who were arrested?

WINTON: Yes. I mean, basically, the targets of this raid were not the lowly gang members. This was essentially the management committee, the sort of board of directors of MS-13.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do they make their money off of? And they are, obviously, a very feared criminal enterprise. What kinds of crimes are they accused of committing?

WINTON: Obviously, murder is the most awful crime they're accused of committing here. And there's actually three specific murders in the federal charges that were brought this week. They're also accused of robbery, rape, running sort of after-hours clubs where they run prostitution, illegal drug sales and human trafficking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's remind people where this gang comes from. It actually started in LA during the 1980s.

WINTON: Yeah. And this gang was originally formed essentially as almost a self-protection group against the existing gangs. When these people came from El Salvador - a lot of them young men, some of them who'd been soldiers and been involved in the civil war in that country - they came to the U.S., and they formed sort of gangs. Those gangs evolved and, at some point, became really quite strong, powerful gangs on the streets of Los Angeles. They started to get deported back to their home country at that point, where they then wreaked even more havoc. However, what's happened is the people who went to El Salvador then came back to the U.S. - or some of their relatives did - and then they appeared in other points around the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's been this, like, cycular (ph) thing where people came from El Salvador to Los Angeles, became gang members, got deported back to El Salvador where they exported the gang stuff, and then that's one of the reasons why we're seeing so many immigrants flee Central America for the United States right now because of the gang problem there.

WINTON: Yeah, I mean, San Salvador, in the last couple of years, has been essentially the murder capital of the world because of these gangs, which are wreaking absolute havoc there and at a level much more severe than we are seeing in the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were any of the gang members included in the indictment in the country illegally?

WINTON: According to our acting U.S. Attorney Sandra Brown, there was a significant number of them were in the country illegally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Los Angeles is a sanctuary city. President Trump would say this is an example of why sanctuary cities don't work. What did the police chief and the acting U.S. attorney have to say about that?

WINTON: Police Chief Charlie Beck was very quick to address this issue. In fact, he pre-empted that question yesterday when talking about this. He points out that MS-13 basically preys on the undocumented. They extort them. They rob them. They rape them. They murder them - that they're the targets. What he says is, we wouldn't have made all these arrests today without the help of the undocumented. So if they didn't trust us and come to us, we wouldn't have a way to capture these people from MS-13.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Richard Winton, crime reporter for the LA Times - thanks so much.

WINTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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