Monday, March 14, 2005

Agents brief Texas lawmen on gang

James Osborne
The Monitor

McALLEN — Local and federal agents from both sides of the border met Thursday to discuss the Mara Salvatrucha, the violent street gang that made headlines last month after the arrest of one of its alleged leaders, who was on the run from a prison sentence in Honduras.

Formed in Los Angeles by Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s, the gang has now established cells across Central America and the United States. The Maras are believed to be involved in drug trafficking and are wanted in connection with numerous murders across the Americas.

"We’re pushing out the borders, letting the officers know that we’re interested in these people and what to look for," said Robert Garza, acting chief patrol agent with the McAllen Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

"They’re using a well-known smuggling route in the Rio Grande Valley, which historically has been the most popular route for OTMs (Other Than Mexicans)."

Garza reiterated assurances made by other law enforcement officials that the Maras do not have a presence in the Valley and are simply passing through on their way north.

He also dismissed claims made by U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, that the Maras are helping al-Qaida terrorists sneak across the border.

"We don’t have any evidence of that," Garza said. "But we’re not the only ones looking at this."

The Maras are of particular concern to Mexico, as that country’s problems with the gang have started to escalate beyond its migration between Central America and the

United States.

"They are always moving through the South, but now they’re starting to get closer to the people in the cities," said Fernando Morones, the regional attaché for the Mexican Attorney General.

"They recruit in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Mexico City."

Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, who deal regularly with the Maras, briefed local law enforcement on their patterns and what to look out for in trying to identify gang members, namely the designs of their tattoos. If and when a suspected member is apprehended, police officers are instructed to contact Border Patrol so information can be run against their database.

Garza hopes these efforts will streamline a process that took 12 days to identify Ebner Rivera-Paz, the Honduran gang leader who had given agents an alias not mentioned in their files.

Rivera-Paz was only identified after a guard at East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa, an overflow facility for undocumented immigrants, matched his face with a recently released photo.

"Had we known, this whole process would have started on Feb. 10, not Feb. 22," Garza said.

Rivera Paz’s case has now been moved to Houston, according to Garza. He is expected to stand trial in the coming months on the charge of illegal re-entry, which could land him in federal prison for up to two years. Honduras is petitioning for Rivera Paz’s extradition in connection with the massacre of 28 people last December
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