Gang crackdown nets 77 in N.C., 34 in Triangle

State leads the country in arrests during a nationwide operation

Staff WriterAugust 2, 2005 

North Carolina led the nation with 77 arrests as federal immigration officials in recent weeks rounded up suspected gang members living illegally in the United States.

Thirty-four men with suspected affiliations to Hispanic street gangs were picked up in the Triangle, while 25 were detained in the Triad and 18 in the Charlotte area, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement information released Monday.

Across the country, a total of 582 were arrested in recent weeks, officials announced Monday in Washington.

The number of arrests in Raleigh rivals that of much larger cities -- 61 were arrested in the Boston area, 23 were arrested in Los Angeles, and 19 were picked up in the New York City area.

"The horrific crimes committed by some of the people we have apprehended include murder, rape, assault, burglary, and, of course, weapons and narcotics offenses," said Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, at a news conference Monday, Cox News Service reported.

But immigrant rights groups questioned what fallout would come from the operation.

"There's always the possibility that racial profiling might take place, that immigrants might be treated different than other people that are arrested," said Carol Brooke, a staff attorney with Immigrants Legal Assistance Project, a program under the Raleigh-based N.C. Justice Center.

The national sweep comes on the heels of another immigration and customs roundup that began in the spring, targeting members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a violent street gang born in Los Angeles neighborhoods with a strong presence in North and Central America.

Of the 27 arrested in Raleigh, 23 came from Mexico, three from El Salvador and one from Honduras, according to information provided by Immigration and Customs.

Their gang affiliations include MS-13, Orphans-13, 18th Street, Brown Pride Aztecs, Surenos-13 and VDM, also known as Very Dangerous Mexicans or Vatos de Michoacan, which means Dudes of Michoacan, a Mexican state. Four Mexican-born men and two Guatemalan men with ties to 18th Street and Vatos Locos, loosely translated as Crazy Dudes, were detained in Harnett County.

One man, a Guatemalan with ties to MS-13, was arrested in Durham. The July operation was centered in Raleigh, and Durham gangs were not a focus, said Thomas D. O'Connell, the resident agent-in-charge for the immigration office in Cary.

Family disputes claim

In Raleigh, Ana Camero Castaneda clutched the Spanish-language pamphlet on gangs, shocked and unsure of where her 17-year-old son was and what had happened.

Just hours before, immigration agents had whisked away Raymundo Camero Castaneda in a pre-dawn raid at Raleigh's Fox Ridge Manor Apartments. Residents of the largely Latino neighborhood off Rock Quarry Road were roused from their beds as agents searched for Camero and three other men taken into custody.

The Camero family says that Camero, who arrived at age 8 in Raleigh from the Guerrero state on Mexico's Pacific coast, is not a gang member. He quit high school last year to work as a carpenter, they say, after his mother's diabetes prevented her from working.

But immigration agents think he is associated with VDM. Camero ran into trouble when he was arrested in April 2004 on a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon.

Camero pleaded guilty and was put on probation, according to court records. Now, like the others arrested in the recent roundup, Camero faces deportation.

Still, his family is bewildered by his recent arrest.

"They don't come with proof" of gang membership, said Merli Camero Castaneda, his 22-year-old sister.

O'Connell dismissed the family's criticism.

"If you're illegally here, you shouldn't have a gun," he said.

Authorities team up

In Raleigh, where Camero and 26 others were arrested within the city limits, agents leaned solely on information gathered by the Raleigh Police Department's gang unit, O'Connell said.

The teaming up of immigration and local police has some worried that Latinos could be unfairly targeted and that immigrant groups may hesitate to contact local police in the future for fear of deportation.

"This type of cooperation [between police and immigration agents] can erode that trust," said Brooke of the Immigrants Legal Assistance Project.

Raleigh police are seeking to keep streets safe, and working with immigration agents to deport suspected gang members is one way to accomplish that goal, said Jim Sughrue, spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department. Raleigh Police Chief Jane Perlov flew to Washington to attend Monday's news conference on the national roundup.

"We are working to convey that this is a community that will be intolerant of violent, illegal, street gang activity," Sughrue said.

In the same sense, officers will investigate crimes regardless of whether or not a victim or others involved are legal or illegal residents, he said.

The chance exists that non-gang members may be picked up along with those who are members of criminal street gangs, said Tony Asion, a director of public safety programs for El Pueblo, a Latino advocacy group based in Raleigh.

While El Pueblo does not condone those who commit crimes, he said, "we need to make sure we're not picking people out of the blue."

Staff writer Sarah Ovaska can be reached at 829-4622 or sovaska@newsobserver.com.

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