LOS ANGELES – While hundreds of Mexican soldiers are deserting the army to join drug trafficking gangs, California is facing the opposite problem: A growing number of gang members here have infiltrated the U.S. Armed Forces in order to receive military training.
The numbers speak for themselves: In 2003 there were just 16 incidents of gang members in the U.S. Armed Forces, while in 2006 the total was 10,309, according to the study, "Gang-Related Activity in the U.S. Armed Forces Increasing," released in 2007 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Twenty-two official entities, including the Los Angeles Police Department, participated in the report.
This study, classified as sensitive and meant for use by official agencies, reveals the presence of street gangs like the Mexican Mafia (EME), the Mara Salvatrucha, Hells Angels, The 18th Street Gang, the Norteños, the Sureños, as well as various supremacist groups on military bases.
Two years before this report came to the light, the Ceres Police Department, in northern California, already knew its fatal results.
Howard Stevenson, sergeant of the force, was killed by Andrés Ray, a Marine who went AWOL from Camp Pendleton and who police say was a longtime member of the Norteños.
According to a report by the Ceres Police, Raya shot the sergeant five times in cold blood, with two shots to the head. Three other officials were injured in the incident and the gang member lost his life.
As a result of the bloodshed, local Police Chief Art De Werk told his staff to treat the anti-gang fight as an exercise in military strategy.
"Gang members are using the techniques and skills learned in the Army to commit crimes, and there is no doubt about that. The worrisome thing is that they endanger not only officials but all of society," says Gregory Lee, former supervisor of the national Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and private consultant in Los Angeles.
In Southern California the orders are clear: Any indication that a gang member has military training must immediately be reported.
Each time authorities enter a gang member’s house, said an anti-gang official who preferred to remain anonymous, "We have precise orders to look for photos, Army uniforms, anything related to the Army or that demonstrates a military training of that gang or gang member."
That information is classified in a special gang database, according to the source.
"For us, it is vital to know if we are confronting an enemy with military training," says Lieutenant George Zagurski, member of the intelligence unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He declined to state the number of local gang members known to have been trained by the Army.
"These are facts for exclusive and official use. We do not want to discuss this with the public," the lieutenant told La Opinión.
Despite the confidential nature of the topic, some experts calculate that out of 100 people who enter the Army, two have a gang affiliation.
"It’s an open secret that the ringleaders of local gangs are encouraging their younger members to enter the Army and receive military training and later to train the rest of the group," claims the former DEA advisor.
The National Gang Task Force reports that from 2003 to 2006, the Army investigated more than 100 cases of crimes that involved soldiers related to the most dangerous gangs in the country.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Armed Forces Criminal Investigation Command has documented the death of at least two soldiers – killed, it appears, by other soldiers with ties to rival gangs. It also registered an increase in the amount of violent incidents between soldiers who are affiliated with gangs.
"Officials do not want this topic spoken about because it uncovers how the Army, in its rush to recruit more soldiers, has had to lower its security standards, allowing in volunteers with criminal backgrounds. We all know that a high number of soldiers has died on the battlefield and others have deserted. We don’t have enough soldiers and the Army has strict orders to increase the number of enlisted troops nationwide, even if that means recruiting criminals," Lee maintains.
Under the so-called "moral waiver," the Armed Forces between 2003 and 2006 permitted into the Army 4,230 convicted criminals, 43,977 people with misdemeanors on their records and 58,561 drug addicts. In 2007, another 10,000 people with criminal records were recruited by the Pentagon, according to an investigation by the Michael D. Palm Center, based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"The problem is not that the Armed Forces are recruiting convicts. On the contrary, we think that the Army has very good programs of rehabilitation. The problem is the increase. The Army is more worried about filling its recruitment quotas than in looking for the best candidates," says lead researcher Michael Bucai.
Nevertheless, it is becoming more and more difficult to detect links between gangs and those interested in enlisting in the Army. According to gang experts, these mafias are using new strategies to infiltrate their members into the Armed Forces.
"Many older gang members are taking care of their newer members so that they maintain a clean criminal record and thus can have unrestricted access to the Army or guns," says an anti-gang official. "We have noticed that in common crimes, gang members are forced to give the name of another member of the group that already has a record so that he gets written up and helps the others to remain clean."
The infiltration of gang members into the Armed Forces must be taken seriously because it represents an important risk for local and national security, says the former DEA agent.
"Gang violence is getting more and more acute and bloody and is the price that society must pay for the faults in the system," Lee opines.
On various occasions, La Opinión tried to contact the Department of Defense spokesperson to understand how they are dealing with the issue. However, as of this issue, there has been no response.
At an international anti-gang police summit in Los Angeles on March 3, officials weighed in about whether gang members have infiltrated the U.S. military.
"These are just rumors," said Christy McCampbell, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. For his part, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he did not know of any evidence of gang infiltration in the U.S. Army but would consider looking into the matter.
Also at the summit, Martín Escorza, head of the National Gang Task Force, said the issue is real. Adding to the problem, he said, is the presence of gang members trained in the armed forces of their respective countries, like El Salvador or Mexico.
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