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A gangster's paradise 

Is Charlotte attracting organized crime?

The higher-ups at the Laredo Police Department didn't want the locals to be alarmed. Earlier this year, the Texas city saw a large surge in the number of hard-core Central American gang members caught within its borders. So the department sought to get the word out that the gangsters wouldn't be hanging around.

"Mostly they are transient," Sgt. Armando Elizondo, supervisor of the department's gang unit, assured the readers of the Laredo Morning Times. They were merely using the area as a crossing point to enter the country illegally on their way to somewhere else, he explained.

Most of those apprehended told authorities they were headed out of state, Elizondo told the paper, mainly to Chicago, New York and "increasingly to Atlanta and areas in North Carolina." Elizondo then specifically named Charlotte.

These aren't just punked-out kids who roam cities with spray paint cans and terrorize the corner bakery with the occasional armed robbery, although they and their subordinates do regularly stick guns in people's faces. No, these are internationally known members of MS-13 and 18th Street gangs from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico for whom organized crime is a business.

Though no one here seems to be the wiser, outside the Queen City, Charlotte is apparently becoming known as a key destination city for organized criminal gangs. A LexisNexis search showed that local and national law enforcement officials who deal with these gangs in traditional hot spots like Los Angeles and New York now regularly refer in newspaper articles to Charlotte as one of a handful of popular locales these gangs are relocating to.

Special Agent Alec J. Turner, director of the FBI's National Gang Intelligence Center, recently described the migration of established international gangsters out of Los Angeles to the LA Weekly. Turner listed Little Rock, Ark., and Charlotte among four cities he named that gangsters favor.

Apparently our city and state's reputation for having a thoroughly dysfunctional criminal justice system now stretches coast to coast and to other countries.

And why not? North Carolina has one of the highest felony dismissal rates in the nation, and state legislators who recently passed a so-called anti-gang bill alternately gutted or didn't include funds to actually prosecute gangsters for the tougher penalties in the bill. These same legislators think they can instead combat this problem with millions for programs to keep kids from joining gangs. I wish them luck with that.

Meanwhile, the signs of the Charlotte area's growing role as an East Coast gang hub are glaring. A few months ago, authorities here went to serve a simple warrant and a SWAT team ended up in a shoot-out with MS-13 gang members. Then two weeks ago, 26 MS-13 members were indicted here. While they also operated in other North Carolina cities, they held most of their meetings here.

Usually this kind of bust starts with a partnership between local police and the federal authorities that originates here. Not so in this case. As part of a new effort to combat international gangs that increasingly recognize no borders, the U.S. Justice Department is undertaking joint anti-gang initiatives with El Salvador, where MS-13 ring leaders continue to direct their international operations from inside and outside of jail.

As part of the program, experienced anti-gang FBI agents worked side by side with Salvadorian authorities to combat transnational gang activities. When the teams made their first major bust and tracked down their targets, they were running quite an operation. Not in Los Angeles or Chicago, as would have been the case a decade ago, but in Charlotte and Greensboro.

The bust was such a big deal that United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Jose Luis Tobar Prieto, Deputy Director General of El Salvador's National Civilian Police flew to Charlotte to hold the national press conference on the success of the program. (Memo to the Charlotte Chamber: This is not the kind of press conference we want to attract.)

As it turned out, the gang was running night clubs here where drug dealers sold their wares. Gang activities also included drug trafficking, extortion, robberies and murder.

Run the names of many of those indicted through our local jail computer system and a pattern emerges. Many of them had prior arrests here for low-level crimes ranging from domestic violence incidents to driving drunk without a license. These were accompanied down at the court house by the usual long list of charge dismissals by the district attorney that are typical of most criminal records here.

From their records, it is obvious that none of these guys were anywhere on the radar of the local justice system before the feds swooped in and bagged them. Which is, of course, precisely the problem.

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