Gangs are as old as America itself and a part of our historical and popular culture. However, fueled by the global nature of the drug trade, gangs are increasingly international operations, with many of the largest and most vicious gangs operating in America hailing from South America. With the infrastructure in place to move and distribute drugs from across the border, the danger exists that they will use their network to, for the right price, traffic terrorists and weapons into the country. For the first time, gangs are presenting a growing threat not only to our personal safety, but to our national security. Since combating gangs will ultimately require a strong local effort, it is essential that Americans learn about the threat and demand strong action from all levels of their government.
Gangs are a ready-made internal criminal network for international terrorists to exploit. Fueled by the drug trade, they are in every major city of the United States. The FBI says there are over 850,000 gang members in the streets today and admit the number is a conservative estimate.
No longer just different groups of rival street thugs, gangs are morphing into criminal enterprises designed to maximize the money and power derived from drug trafficking. And gangs are increasingly dropping old rivalries to collaborate. In some locations, former rival gangs work in "shifts" to sell cocaine and other narcotics.
Like gangs, international terrorists derive much of their money from the drug trade. The terrorists who engineered the Madrid bombings were involved in trafficking. And just as rival gangs in the United States have put aside old rivalries to maximize drug profits, there is a growing danger that international terrorist groups will target gangs as potential allies as a source for protection, transportation, money, and weapons. After all, why wouldn't two groups — one working on greed and the other working off of hatred — collaborate to further their goals?
The seed network already exists to facilitate this organization. Gangs increasingly have international roots. Called "supergangs" by law enforcement officials, these gangs often rely on the network of associates outside the United States (often from their home country) for drugs and money laundering. The El Salvadorian gang Mara Salvatrucha — or MS-13 — has over 80,000 members in Central America and a rapidly rising presence in the United States.
This makes our porous Southern border an easy target not only for drug smuggling, but human smuggling. Last year, the border patrol caught 1.2 million people trying to enter the United States. Many think they missed as much as four times that many, and international gangs have found human trafficking to be a potent source for income. Fees for illegal entry can reach as high as $40,000, depending on the nationality of the person being brought into the country.
While there is no confirmed documentation between MS-13 and terrorists, the threat has been large enough to draw the attention of both law enforcement and the Pentagon. Both President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld have visited Latin America to discuss security issues. And in recent Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, Homeland Security Secretary Admiral James Loy cited intelligence that "strongly suggests" al Qaeda operatives have considered using the Mexico border as an entry point, believing they can "pay their way" in illegally.
However, action against gangs has proved difficult. A major challenge is our prison system. Prisons are so dominated by gang culture that they serve as a recruiting and training ground for gangs. Detainees often have little choice on whether to join a gang — they need to ally themselves with a group for protection. Indeed, many gangs operating in the United States today have their origin in prisons.
Furthermore, even when a gang's leadership is arrested, they are able to continue their activities from behind bars. Gang members have become adept at using their legal protections to their advantage. For instance, those representing themselves in a case are guaranteed unmonitored conference calls from the prison library with those helping to prepare for the case. But with no monitoring system, there is no way to tell whom they are calling or for what purpose. In addition, the vast sums of money inherent in the drug trade make prison workers a ripe target for bribery.
In addition to these obstacles, sanctuary laws make it difficult for local police to act against illegal aliens who may be in gangs. Currently, they require a federal warrant to make an arrest.
There have been some recent successes. Cities such as Los Angeles are beginning to explore allowing local police to use immigration laws to combat gang violence and citizen groups such as the Minutemen have drawn great attention to the problem of our porous border.
In addition, the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005 applied a similar law to the RICO statutes — Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization, used originally to fight organized crime — to gangs. The act allows law enforcement to prosecute gang members in the context of their affiliation with the gang, enabling a more comprehensive view of the organization's structure for gangs and recognizes the national security relevance of local gang investigations by providing federal funding.
This is essential, because ultimately fighting international gangs requires a local effort. With Porter Goss' recent testimony that he fully expects a weapon of mass destruction to be driven across the border, Congress and the administration should increase their efforts to help communities keep gangs from overrunning their neighborhoods before the entire nation pays the price.
Newt Gingrich is a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and author of the best-seller "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America." He hosts American Gangs — Ties to Terror?, a FOX News Channel special this Saturday at 9pm ET.