Guilford County’s Mexican gang scare: Violent criminals or just illegal immigrants?

by Jordan Green

When Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the arrests of 582 allegedly violent street gang members in a two-week sweep by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau on Aug. 1, it created the perception that the department had chalked up a major victory in a battle against organized crime networks led by foreign nationals.

Among those apprehended in the ‘Community Shield’ operation, the Homeland Security press release highlighted one Ramon Martinez-Valencia who was arrested on July 20 by Chicago ICE agents assisted by local police. Martinez-Valencia is described as ‘“a high-ranking enforcer of ‘Sureños-13’ who had felony weapons and violence convictions and was previously deported from the United States.’”

With almost a sixth of the arrests taking place in North Carolina it would be easy to conclude that the Tar Heel State lies at the center of a massive criminal conspiracy launched from foreign soil.

Yet interviews with Brown and with local and federal law enforcement agents based in Greensboro, suggest that that the greatest commonality among those arrested was their lack of citizenship and the fact that they were born outside the United States. In Greensboro, alleged gang ties were often based on rumors and the word of neighborhood snitches, according to two employees of the Guilford County Sheriffs Department. In Guilford County, law enforcement agents and ICE spokeswoman Brown could point to little evidence of previous criminal activity, or weapons and drug possession on the part of the illegal immigrants arrested during the sweep.

Of 74 reported arrests in North Carolina, Brown said 10 arrests were made in Guilford County, and 10 were made in Winston-Salem. The Guilford County tally included an alleged gang member already in the custody of the NC Department of Corrections. The Winston-Salem ICE office also took credit for five arrests in Sanford, a town in distant Lee County. Other North Carolina arrests took place in the Triangle area and in Charlotte.

The ICE spokeswoman said most of those arrested in Guilford County were Mexican, along with a small number from Cambodia, and that they were members or associates of the Tiny Rascals, Sureños 13 and Vatos Locos gangs. Brown said her agency had provided her with no information about criminal charges filed against 10 arrested in Guilford County.

‘“In Sanford, North Carolina is a person who’s had a ‘reckless driving,’ ‘driving under the influence’ and ‘child cruelty,”” she said. ‘“I don’t see any criminal histories for these people arrested in Guilford County.’”

In the Triad, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with the Forsyth and Guilford County sheriffs departments confirmed their participation in the sweeps.

‘“The US ICE federal guy who worked out of the Winston-Salem office used a couple of our guys to increase his numbers and firepower,’” said Guilford County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Arch Embler. ‘“And they relied heavily on our information to make the arrests. We had reports by neighbors that they suspected someone in the apartment complex of being an illegal immigrant or a member of a gang.’”

Det. Herbert Byrd, who assisted immigration agents in ‘knock and talk’ visits at Hickory Run Mobile Home Park, said that four Hispanic males he helped arrest were previously known to the sheriff’s department from an incident in which a vehicle was broken into at Ragsdale High School. In the course of arrests, he said he ran across a ‘“small amount of drugs ‘— nothing felonious.’” As for the allegation of the arrested immigrants’ gang affiliations, Byrd said he ‘“heard it through word of mouth’” within the department.

Whether firearms were recovered during the sweep is unclear due to conflicting accounts from the sheriff’s department and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. Capt. Phil Byrd, who heads the department’s anti-gang task force but is no relation to Det. Byrd, did not return phone messages on Aug. 5.

‘“I know there were some weapons confiscated,’” Embler said. ‘“I heard they were handguns.’”

But Roark Wright, the ATF’s Greensboro resident agent in charge said he was not aware that any firearms were found during the arrests.

‘“The arrests were all illegal aliens here, I believe,’” he said. ‘“There were two or a few reentry aggravated felons. Those were folks who were deported and came back.’”

Wright said every agency in the Justice Department was directed to prepare an anti-gang strategy.

Embler downplayed the possibility that the sheriff’s department might discourage Latinos residents of Guilford County from reporting domestic violence and other victimization incidents for fear that their immigration status might be shared with ICE.

‘“The way these guys behaved when they went on this federal operation, it’s not like they were going out busting down doors,’” he said. ‘“We’ve done a lot of things to increase our credibility with the Latino community. We’ve had a number of our officers trained in conversational Spanish. Your typical law enforcement course used to be brushing up on a few phrases like, ‘Let me see your drivers license.””

Deborah Kelly, director of the Greensboro advocacy group Centro de Acción Latina, said she doesn’t buy Homeland Security’s story that the department’s real agenda was to deport gang members.

‘“Two of the people we know that are getting deported, the only thing they had on them was that they were here illegally,’” she said. ‘“I believe this is another excuse to get some undocumented immigrants out of the country. What I want to know is what determinants you are using to decide whether these kids are gang members? If they’re using certain colors or kinds of clothes? They’re rounding up people with no previous arrest record. In my mind that doesn’t make them a dangerous gang member.’”

Brown said she doesn’t believe ICE has overstepped its mandate of controlling immigration by combating violent crime, and likewise doesn’t see any problem with deputizing local police to assist in raids against illegal immigrants.

‘“We have an initiative called ‘Community Shield’ that began in March to target dangerous and violent gangs wreaking havoc on communities,’” she said. ‘“Most of these are foreign-born gang members, so we have a special role to play.’”

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