U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement today announced the arrest of 15 suspected gang members in Georgia in the past month in part of a nationwide crackdown on gang-organized human and drug trafficking. The men, all in the country illegally, were charged with auto theft, drug possession, and forgery, though it appears that more serious charges may be pending for some. ICE believes the 15 men arrested in Georgia are linked to the Sureños 13 gang, which began in Southern California and has spread nationwide. The Atlanta, Cobb County, Forest Park, and Sandy Springs police departments were involved with the operation.
According to ICE, 637 have been arrested so far as part of the “Project Nefarious” operation, a joint federal–state law enforcement crackdown on “168 street, prison and outlaw motocycle gangs.” 290 of the arrested men are foreign nationals from 33 different countries and will likely be deported after criminal proceedings have concluded and any sentences have been served. 479 have been charged with various crimes and 10 of the men apprehended were wanted on murder charges. Large amounts of firearms, drugs, vehicles, and currency have been seized as well.
Another hot spot of arrests was New Mexico where 28 people were arrested in the “Project Nefarious” crackdown. As in Georgia, large quantities of drugs and weapons were seized. New Mexico has become a hotbed of gang activity given its proximity to Mexico and large expanses of remote areas that are perfect for organized drug trafficking activity. As state budgets have shrunk due to economic problems in recent years, local law enforcement officers have begun relying more and more heavily on federal assistance in combating this gang activity.
Though no such charges have been announced yet, it is likely that some of the men arrested will be charged under the federal criminal street gangs statute. The statute criminalizes participation in gangs that commit violent crimes and drug crimes, or conspire to do so. If it is shown that someone who committed a drug crime or violent crime on behalf of a street gang, the statute authorizes enhanced sentence, adding up to 10 years on top of the base sentence.
Whether or not an individual is a participant in a street gang can often be difficult for prosecutors to prove and an experienced criminal defense lawyer can often thwart the government’s attempt to add enormous sentence enhancements. When a defendant’s gang membership is in doubt or if it is not clear he acted on behalf of a gang, a skilled attorney can mean the difference between years and decades in prison.