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U.S. gang sting nets 582 suspects, 14 in Decatur

By Chris Paschenko
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2442

Vowing to remove violent Hispanic gang members from the nation's streets, federal immigration officials announced Monday the arrest of 582 suspects, including 44 apprehended from four Alabama cities.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Birmingham and New Orleans said the two-week initiative, dubbed Operation Community Shield, also led to the arrest of 14 suspected Hispanic gang members in Decatur.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said state and local law enforcement officers teamed with ICE agents to target more than 54 violent street gangs.

"Street gangs in America have grown and expanded their influence to an alarming level, marked by increasing violence and criminal activity," Chertoff said. "These gangs pose a severe threat to public safety, and this growth must not go unchallenged."

Marcy Forman, ICE director of investigations, said 506 alleged gang members and associates were arrested on administrative immigration charges, including being a convicted felon and entering the county without inspection.

"We have a message for violent street gang members in America," Forman said. "Stopping your violence and criminal activities is high on ICE's list of priorities. We're backing our resolve with results.

"In the last two weeks, we've arrested 11 of your gang leaders, 490 members and 81 associates in 27 states, and we're just getting started."

2 arrests unrelated

Two Decatur women, initially believed arrested during Operation Community Shield, were not part of the 14 gang-related arrests during the roundup and aren't facing criminal prosecution, said Chip Lollar, Birmingham ICE resident agent in charge.

ICE agents arrested Erika G. Lima, 20, and Alicia Gonzalez, 33, on July 21, following a sting that netted 13 arrests in Decatur. Information on Decatur's 14th arrest wasn't available.

"I can't provide details of the investigation," Lollar said. "They were apprehended for entering the U.S. without inspection. They've been processed for removal because they're in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act. They'll see an immigration judge and be placed in deportation proceedings."

Women have children

Grace Comontofski, who translated during a July 22 interview with Lima's and Gonzalez's families, said both have children. Lima has a 9-month-old who was born in America.

"They are still at (Etowah County) detention center," Comontofski said. "The family went to see them, but they told them they weren't there. Somebody else detained there was in contact with family and let them know they're still there. Unfortunately, every time they try to call the family their calls are cut off. We think the phones are tapped."

Sgt. Proncey Robertson of the Decatur Police Anti-Crime Unit said the women were detained for allegedly alerting a relative suspected of kidnapping, extortion and alien smuggling to the ICE presence in Decatur.

An immigration judge will hear both women's cases, Lollar said.

"Deportation is up to the immigration judge," Lollar said. "Their court hearings will be in Memphis, Tennessee. Once they're placed into Etowah County (Jail), they're processed and turned over to Detention and Removal, which is another entity of ICE. Their primary mission is transportation to court hearings and deportation outside country. They may already be (in) Memphis."

Lollar declined to name the 14 arrested in Decatur, saying the information would have to come from the U.S. attorney's office in Birmingham. A call to the Birmingham office wasn't immediately returned.

4 Alabama cities

All 44 arrests in Alabama came from Alabaster, Decatur, Hoover and Pelham, Lollar said, based on high levels of suspected Hispanic gang activity.

"That's not to say other areas were not reported to us," Lollar said. "We had to utilize the manpower we had to get it done correctly."

ICE agents continue to identify other suspects and prepare cases for prosecution, Lollar said.

"Once they go before an immigration judge and they're deported, odds are we won't see them again," Lollar said. "What we have to do locally is protect the community and take things on a priority basis, like Operation Predator, which targets those who abuse children with indentured slave labor."

Begun in February, Community Shield initially targeted the Hispanic gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and has expanded to exceed 1,057 arrests, ICE officials said.

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