"We knew these operations were different from the states. There was a feeling of heightened awareness of our surroundings and increased tension in the air. Shootings and murders are taking place all over the city on a daily basis. When we were driving to a location downtown to look for gang members, we saw a body with a gunshot wound to the head lying on the sidewalk. " - Chuck Reed, ICE video production specialist
In Honduras, on assignment for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Video Production Specialist Chuck Reed kept his camera rolling nearly nonstop for three days in May during Operation Double Impact. While Reed is routinely behind the lens of live police action, the prospect of filming ICE/HSI agents and Honduras National Police (HNP) as they scoured the Tamara Prison and the Honduras streets, targeting Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street (M-18) gangs, made him "a little nervous."
The MS-13 and M-18 gangs engage in almost every conceivable criminal enterprise, including weapons and drug trafficking and human smuggling and trafficking. They violently protect their illicit interests through murder, murder for hire, kidnapping, blackmail, extortion and assassination. Frequently traveling between the U.S. and their home countries (usually somewhere in Central America or Mexico), these highly-mobile transnational gang members create a revolving door effect, perpetuating the north-south circular flow of gang activity.
A global and sophisticated anti-gang strategy is, therefore, critical to law enforcement. This fact was the impetus for expanding into Honduras, ICE's most effective tool in the fight against transnational street gangs -- Operation Community Shield (OCS). Since 2005 when OCS was first launched, ICE has partnered with federal, state and local law enforcement to identify, investigate, disrupt and dismantle violent street gangs. ICE is like no other federal law enforcement agency in that it is empowered by law with the authority to remove (deport) criminal aliens. Thus, ICE's OCS is a powerful force in the fight against transnational gangs.
Establishing a new Operation Community Shield Task Force (OCSTF) based in Honduras this past February, the ICE National Gang Unit, in conjunction with the ICE Assistant Attaché Honduras and the Narcotics Affairs Section of the Department of State, created the first OCS international alliance.
"Our OCSTF in Honduras is fostering and promoting clear, guided core law enforcement principles for Honduras National Police (HNP) gang units in their early stages of development," said Christopher Merendino, the International Program Manager of ICE/HSI Transnational Gangs. "Working together, disrupting these gangs in targeted areas and collecting intelligence, ICE and the HNP are bridging the gaps in combating gang activity and building a strong international crime-fighting network that will be difficult for gang members to elude."
After four months of ICE's mentoring and capacity building teaching the vetted HNP officers of the newly-formed task force the art of gang intelligence collection and sharing, as well as proven ICE enforcement strategies, the OCSTF put their lessons to work.
Reed videotaped and took still shots within the Tamara Prison, which housed MS-13 and M-18 gang members in four different compounds. But getting inside the prison was not an easy feat as task force members had to pry open the prison doors, which the inmates had locked. ICE Assistant Attaché in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Javier Pacheco, who helped coordinate the OCSTF in Honduras, was on the scene. Pacheco said the inmates "were not used to anyone invading their space. They own the prisons."
With limited time and the clock ticking, task force members had time to search only part of one M-18 compound. Law enforcement officers seized knives, narcotics and cell phones (the latter of which provided valuable call data that can be used for further gang investigations). Out of 180 inmates searched, the task force was able to fingerprint approximately 30 gang members using the latest digital scanning technique, the ICE CrossMatch Mobile IDENT.
"Our goal is to document every single MS-13 and M-18 member that is housed in the Honduras prison system," said Pacheco. Having fingerprints, photos and other identifying gang member information on file and sharing this information with law enforcement on both sides of the border is essential to stopping the problem of gang activity.
After the prison raid, OCSTF officers saturated the gang-plagued Comayaguelo Market, a place where gang members sell drugs, rob pedestrians and hold meetings. Officers arrested 33 gang members on Honduran federal and state criminal violations, including narcotics and firearms charges. They seized narcotics, cell phones and a vehicle. They also seized more than 1.8 million counterfeit DVDs and CDs with an estimated street value of $2 million. This latter crime is an intellectual property rights (IPR) violation and is also under ICE's jurisdiction.
Reed lauded the "great working relationship" between ICE and the HNP. "We could never have gone into the prison, conducted the IPR operation or conducted any of the gang operations without the cooperation of the HNP and the Minister of Security," said Reed. "The ICE vetted unit worked tirelessly to make the operation a success. Although there was a language barrier, I felt as if I got to know these agents. I was thoroughly impressed with their work ethic and their ability to get the job done."
Pacheco, who has served in Honduras as the ICE Attaché for more than a year says he's met "some of the best police officers in Honduras. They are focused on their mission. They are loyal and dedicated to their job. They believe in what they are doing and believe that they can make a difference."
In fact, Pacheco says Operation Double Impact has already made a difference. "We are starting to see the mentality evolve," said Pacheco. "More people are coming forward to their local precincts and sharing information and providing leads. We are seeing more arrests and greater quality of arrests -- not just the street thugs, but the gang leaders are being reported."
From his experience, Pacheco says that children join gangs in order to survive. "It's a pressure thing. A gang that owns the community pressures the kids to join."
The solution is education at an early age," Pacheco said. He cited a Honduran government and State Department backed community policing program designed to offer children guidance and keep them out of gangs.
Reed recorded the events of Operation Double Impact as part of his job for ICE. The entire experience, however -- dangerous, adrenaline spiked and ultimately purposeful and fulfilling -- will also be filed in Reed's memory bank. "It's something I'm never going to forget." Reed said.
Continuing with the success of the Honduran OCSTF, ICE is in the process of establishing an OCSTF in Kingston, Jamaica.