WASHINGTON – Some 103 suspected members of a violent criminal street gang that has been linked to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have been arrested in seven U.S. cities, the government announced today.

The target of the massive sting operation was Mara Salvatruchas gang – also known as MS-13 – whose members have been known to behead victims and attack with grenades and machetes.

The raids, which began in January, are part of the first nationwide crackdown on the Central America-based gang that boasts members throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada. The group specializes in cross-border drug-dealing, arms-running and people smuggling operations.

Federal officials estimate between 8,000 and 10,000 MS-13 members live in 31 states – the majority of them in the country illegally.

Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement used information from state and local law enforcement authorities to target MS-13 activities in the New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Newark, Miami and Dallas metropolitan areas, according to the federal agency.

Half of the suspects charged in the sting, nicknamed “Operation Community Shield,” have prior arrests or convictions for violent crimes, including murder, sodomy, assault and arson. All of them can be deported for violating immigration laws, said Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia.

“Our goal is simple: Operation Community Shield aims to dismantle the MS-13 criminal gang by removing gang members from the streets and from the community,” said Garcia, director of ICE.

Reputed leaders of the organization were arrested recently in Los Angeles and New Jersey. Both had previous felony convictions.

MS-13 began in El Salvador and now includes members from Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Last month, former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy called MS-13 an emerging threat to the United States, linking the gang and the al-Qaida terrorist organization during testimony to the U.S. Congress. Garcia said today that while there is no definitive link between MS-13 and al-Qaida, the gang’s operations show that “you have to accept that as a homeland security risk as well.”

Officials arrested 30 alleged gang members in the New York metropolitan area, the most of any of the seven cities targeted.
Twenty-five were arrested in Washington, 17 in Los Angeles, and 10 each in the Baltimore, Newark and Miami areas. The last arrest came in Dallas, officials said.

MS-13 is known to have joined forces with former members of the Farabundo Mart? National Liberation Front, a radical terrorist group, and some U.S. intelligence sources say they believe they may already be cooperating with Islamic terrorist groups – including al-Qaida.

The Mara Salvatruchas identify themselves with tattoos, such as “MS” or the numbers 13 and 18, signifying their relationship to the gang. The 13 and 18 signify the city streets in L.A. where they “hung out.”

U.S. officials are concerned the gang members might help sneak al-Qaida terrorists into America.

A leader of the violent, terror-connected Latin American gang Mara Salvatruchas, Ebner Anivel Rivera-Paz, was arrested three weeks ago and is accused of murdering more than two dozen people in Honduras. He was wanted in connection with the December bus massacre of 28 people, including six children, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

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