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L.A. is investigating 50-year-old police gangs, finally

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  • Civilian commission announces full-scale investigation into the L.A. Sheriff’s Department
  • At least 18 gangs have existed in the department, a report finds

(Reuters) – Poor, mostly minority communities around the country have complained for decades that some local law enforcement agencies often behave more like racist criminal street gangs than sworn peace officers, unlawfully terrorizing Black and Latino communities.

Although serious efforts to confront the issue on a systemic level have been absent, there is some evidence to support the assertion in many jurisdictions.

In Los Angeles, there is no doubt.

Officials have known that violent, racist gangs operate within the ranks of the nation’s largest local police force, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, for more than 30 years, according to news reports, federal court decisions, independent investigations and governmental analyses dating back to 1990. The deputy gangs create a shadow system of supervision, in conflict with the actual chain of command, and have an us-against-them culture that leads to racial profiling, frequent and excessive use of force, and sometimes deaths.

At least 18 of these secretive groups have been identified over the years, with macabre names like the Banditos, Jump Out Boys, Executioners and Grim Reapers, according to a 2021 report from the Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law and Policy.

Historically, the gangs have formed at mostly white police stations in poor, majority-Black and Latino immigrant communities – so-called “ghetto stations,” according to a 1992 study commissioned by the County Board of Supervisors. By contrast, majority-white, higher-income areas like Malibu “have never known deputy gangs or cliques,” the Loyola Center reported.

Six LASD stations accounted for well over half of the 133 deputy shootings between 2016 and 2021, and each “has an active deputy gang” and a history of complaints “and lawsuits alleging deputy-gang misconduct,” the Loyola report found. Approximately 80% of those shootings involved Black or Latino people.

The county keeps a running tab of legal claims related to the deputy gangs: the cases have cost L.A. about $21 million since 2010.

On March 24, a civilian commission formed in 2017 to oversee the sheriff’s department announced a “full-scale” investigation into LASD’s gangs.

The move appears to be a commendable effort to truly confront the scope of a profoundly serious problem that reflects on the fundamental fitness of a law enforcement agency. Reports documenting similar evidence of white supremacist individuals and gangs in other jurisdictions suggest police forces in other cities could benefit from similar investigations.

During a press conference March 29, Sheriff Alex Villanueva described the investigation as an attempt at “finding Bigfoot,” and accused the Los Angeles Times of colluding with the inspector general and commission to smear him during an election cycle. (The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, in response to some of my questions about the investigation, referred me to a video of the press conference.)

I asked Sean Kennedy, commission chair and executive director of the Loyola Center, why the current investigation is different from past government-led efforts.

California’s public record act was recently amended “to make many incidents of police violence, sexual assault and false reporting ‘non-confidential,’” Kennedy said. “Since the deputy gangs appear to regularly engage in all these activities, we will likely have more access to the personnel files than past commissions.”

The gangs within LASD date back to at least 1971, senior officers told the Los Angeles Times in March 1999.

Members are tattooed with symbols of violence and death, use hand signals and prison slang, and sometimes “tax” trainee deputies for money or sex – just like many criminal gangs.

In 1990, a federal judge specifically found that “departmental policy makers” knew deputies in Lynwood had formed a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang,” the Vikings, yet tacitly authorized its corrupt behavior.

The last LASD undersheriff – the second-in-command – was a tattooed Vikings member who fatally shot a man under circumstances another cop called an “execution,” according to the Loyola report. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for obstruction of justice.

A pending lawsuit filed by internal whistleblowers also included allegations that the current undersheriff was a member of the police gangs. The LASD did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations.

Although it flies under the radar compared with the size of the Los Angeles Police Department, LASD is a sprawling agency even by global standards, with about 18,000 employees serving more than 10 million Americans. It spans nearly 200 communities, and oversees one of the largest jail systems in the world. The fact that racist law enforcement gangs have persisted in such a major department – and despite the protestations of local and federal officials – speaks to the prevalence of white supremacy in U.S. policing and the illegitimate entrenchment of police power in national politics.

The FBI warned of “white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement” by organized groups and individuals in a 2006 intelligence assessment. Its 2015 policy statement on counterterrorism pointed out that domestic terrorism investigations of white supremacists “often have identified active links to law enforcement officers,” according to a 2020 report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Notably, Metropolitan Police Department officers in Washington, D.C., have also been documented using apparent gang signs and symbols that associate their units with violence and white supremacist groups, the Washington Post reported in August 2017. A D.C. judge dismissed a gun possession case that year over allegations that the arresting officers were involved in creating a t-shirt featuring the Grim Reaper – and which looked very much like the logos of the LASD gangs.

Kennedy said that the “persistence” of deputy gangs in LASD is unique. The current investigation has more information to build on and is confronting the problem during a generation when civilian oversight is no longer novel, he added.

He also said the dynamic inside law enforcement agencies is changing.

“Times are different,” Kennedy said. We believe many LASD members “oppose the deputy gangs and therefore will come forward notwithstanding the so-called ‘code of silence.’”

It’s a fair assumption, to my mind. And good reason for other oversight bodies to follow Los Angeles’ lead.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com




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It takes 5 to 13 years to buy freedom • The Georgia Virtue

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(The Center Square) – A letter in possession of a woman rescued from a sex trafficking ring in Texas says it takes roughly five to 13 years to buy freedom. Law enforcement officers have told The Center Square it can take longer if the victims are sold more than once and owe multiple debts.

The letter was obtained by The Center Square from a law enforcement officer involved in rescuing trafficked Asian women in Rockport, Texas. Her name isn’t being disclosed for safety reasons. Two witnesses involved in the case were beheaded in Houston, law enforcement officers say, and others are afraid to expose a violent, extensive criminal trafficking ring operating out of Houston.

In this case, officers first rescued women being held in a sex-trafficking operation at a Korean foot spa in Victoria, Texas, where forced prostitution was occurring. They later discovered the same people were being moved and forced into prostitution in multiple locations. Victoria is a few hours south of Houston; Rockport is north of Corpus Christi.

The letter translated into English, reads, “Dearest Daughter, in USA we sometimes have something like a slave boy and slave girl. We call it indentured servant.

“A person goes to the job center to come to USA to work. That person is poor and has no money. They sign control to visas for a given length of time in exchange. They work for 5 to 13 years to pay back. Lots of these jobs are like housekeeping, farm worker, etc.

“Lots of women that come to the USA legally from Nicaragua [with work visas] come as indentured servant. I believe that it is wrong to own another person. If I thought Annie owned you or others until they paid back the cost to come to USA I would want to pay the debt.”

Annie likely refers to the boss controlling the trafficked victims, a law enforcement officer explained to The Center Square.

“Please forgive me I do not want you to think that I believe China is not a great country and a proud nation. Please forgive me,” the letter reads. Chinese traffickers were involved in the case, the law enforcement officer said.

Goliad County Sheriff Roy Boyd, who worked in law enforcement for years in Victoria County and has been thwarting criminal activity along the Highway 59 corridor, told The Center Square, “many people think slavery ended after the Civil War but slavery is actually larger today. It just looks different. Those smuggled into the country may work at hotels, but they won’t work for the hotels, they work for cartels.”

Boyd said that cartel and gang operatives not only hold their victims’ passports but also control their movements, overseeing their forced labor and living arrangements. They control where they live and transport them to and from their jobs.

“They charge their modern-day slaves for rent and for food,” he said, “acting as contractors, divvying up money to workers. As many as 15 people may be staying in a one-bedroom apartment.” Those trafficked into forced labor, Boyd said, “may work for one group and just as they are about to pay off what they owe they are sold to another group and their debt starts all over again.”

Boyd launched an Operation Lone Star task force working in multiple counties thwarting criminal activity along the Highway 59 corridor stemming from the southern border to Houston. The more than 90 people held inside a Houston neighborhood house who were rescued last April, he said, were traced back to a smuggling ring and stash house he and his deputies uncovered in Goliad County.

Texas law enforcement working through Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star continue to thwart human smuggling operations stemming from the southern border. They’re interdicting smugglers using 18-wheelers, dump trucks, moving trucks, cars and vans, private planes and train cars to move people brought into Texas illegally north to major Texas cities and then into the res of the U.S. The FBI also has warned that El Paso has become a major human smuggling and trafficking destination for cartel and gang operatives.

“Human smuggling involves bringing noncitizens into the United States via the deliberate evasion of immigration laws, as well as the unlawful transportation and harboring of noncitizens already in the country illegally,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement states. It’s “a gateway crime for additional criminal offenses, including illegal immigration, identity theft, document and benefit fraud, gang activity, financial fraud and terrorism.”

Abbott recently increased the reward for anyone providing information about stash houses being used by transnational criminal organizations. Last year, he and the state legislature increased penalties for human smugglers and Texas became the first state to make buying sex a felony.

According to an annual report by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, while many criminal enterprises in Texas slowed down because of COVID-19 in 2020, “human trafficking flourished.” During the first 11 months of 2020, there were more than 1.5 million unique commercial sex advertisements posted in the state of Texas, over 20% of which advertised suspected children, the report found.

Human trafficking, a separate crime from human smuggling, relies on smuggling, involves adult sex trafficking, adult labor trafficking, child sex trafficking and child labor trafficking.

Adult sex trafficking involves trafficking adults for commercial sex by force, fraud, or coercion; labor trafficking involves trafficking adults for labor by force, fraud, or coercion. Child sex trafficking involves trafficking children under age 18 for commercial sex by any means; labor trafficking involves trafficking children under age 18 for labor by force, fraud, or coercion.

The Texas Human Trafficking Resource Center and the National Human Trafficking Hotline have published extensive resources and the Hotline encourages anonymous tips by calling 1-888-373-7888 or texting 233733.

By Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor




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Report: Iran Threatens ‘Violence and Torture’ Against World Cup Players’ Families Over Anthem Protest

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The families of Iran’s World Cup players could face “violence and torture” if the team doesn’t “behave,” the Islamic regime is warning players after they refused last week to sing the country’s national anthem.

That message came from members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who met with the team before its Friday win against Wales, CNN reported. The Iranian officers are in Qatar to track the actions of players, who are forbidden from meeting with foreigners.

“There are a large number of Iranian security officers in Qatar collecting information and monitoring the players,” a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

The regime’s threat comes after the Iran World Cup team refused to sing the country’s anthem ahead of its Nov. 21 match against England. The apparent protest was likely a sign of solidarity with the mass protests across Iran following the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police.

The State Department on Monday expressed support for the players, saying the regime should heed the “athletes’ calls for change.” Iranian state television cut away from coverage of the Nov. 21 game during the anthem protest. Back home, the regime is using internet blackouts to thwart protesters in the country’s Kurdish-populated areas.




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Will Other Central American Leaders Follow Nicaragua’s Authoritarian Lead?

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And beyond Nicaragua, President Ortega’s actions tend to reverberate throughout Central America. His political crackdown in recent years has sent waves of migrants into neighboring countries — especially south into Costa Rica, which is struggling to support more than 150,000 Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers. But Ortega’s authoritarian measures are also sending shockwaves into northern Central America, where civil society activists and the media face their own struggles to strengthen rule of law and preserve democratic space in their home countries. USIP’s Arturo Matute and Mary Speck discuss Nicaragua’s ongoing crisis and its implications for the region.

President Ortega has jailed or exiled most of his political opposition and silenced independent media inside the country. So, why has he now decided to target the Catholic Church?

Speck: Ortega won a fourth consecutive term in November 2021, though only after jailing major opposition candidates and blocking international election observers. Since then, he has further intensified efforts to consolidate control.

Ortega’s Sandinista government has not only silenced the independent press — arresting or threatening both journalists and non-editorial staff — but has also shuttered more than 1,400 NGOs. Those targeted include charities (such as Operation Smile, which provides free cleft-lip surgery), professional and business associations (such as the Rotary Club of Leon), and recreational organizations (such as the Equestrian Center of Cocibolca). The apparent aim is to close down any NGO associated with business or civic leaders that have criticized the government.

The Catholic Church was virtually the only influential, independent organization left standing, and retains enormous prestige in the predominantly Catholic country — which is why President Ortega previously asked the bishops to mediate between the government and the opposition in 2018, following three months of protests that claimed more than 300 lives. But that mediation effort broke down when church leaders insisted the government address demands for greater democracy. Since then, President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have intensified attacks on Catholic leaders, calling them “terrorists” intent on “destabilizing the Nicaraguan state.”

Police surrounded the rectory in Matagalpa for two weeks before staging their predawn raid to seize Bishop Rolando Alvarez. The popular prelate is now under house arrest in Managua, far away from his parishioners. Police reportedly sent the other detainees to El Chipote, a notorious prison that holds nearly 200 political prisoners under what relatives and attorneys describe as horrific conditions, without access to decent food or health care.

The Ortega government faces sanctions from the United States and other countries. What do these sanctions entail and why haven’t they deterred the Sandinistas so far?

Speck: Nicaragua is the most heavily sanctioned country in Central America. In 2021, Congress passed the RENACER Act, which calls for sanctions on those involved in unfair elections or corruption, human rights abuses, and attacks on press freedom.

In addition, the United States has placed more than 20 Nicaraguans on the so-called Engel List, which bars them from entering the United States. Those named include judges and prosecutors responsible for the cases against Ortega’s political opponents. Canada, Britain and the EU have imposed similar sanctions, targeting individuals or entities responsible for serious corruption, abuse or repression.

Until recently, the United States had refrained from broader measures. But in July, the Biden administration revoked Nicaragua’s sugar quota, which allowed producers to sell the commodity in the United States at preferential rates. Although Nicaraguan sugar sales are relatively small, the country’s economy depends on exports to the United States — its largest trading partner.

Over 15 years of Sandinista government, the Ortega family and their business allies have amassed considerable wealth. By targeting exports, the United States is warning the Nicaraguan elite that la piñata may finally be ending.

Thus far, the Ortega government has not blinked, perhaps looking to its closest allies in the region — Cuba and Venezuela — for examples of governments that have long survived U.S. sanctions, even as their people sink deeper into poverty.

Are Nicaragua’s neighbors also trending toward authoritarianism? Why has it been so hard to consolidate democratic governance under the rule of law in the region?

Matute: The Sandinista government’s repression of dissent is extreme, but far from unique in Central America. The three countries to Nicaragua’s north — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are all plagued by weak institutions, extreme poverty and high crime rates. All of these countries suffered authoritarian rule and violent internal conflicts throughout much of the 20th century, and Honduras endured a military coup as recently as 2009.

Electoral democracy has largely failed to provide the citizens of these countries with physical or economic security. Instead, millions of undocumented migrants have left Central America to seek a better future in the United States.

Support for democratic institutions and norms has eroded over the past decade. Polling shows that 51 percent of Salvadorans, 38 percent of Guatemalans and 26 percent of Hondurans believe that presidents should be able to shut down their respective congresses in difficult times. Majorities in all three countries believe that most politicians are corrupt.

El Salvador’s populist president, Nayib Bukele, has capitalized on frustrations with the country’s powerful street gangs to carry out draconian anti-crime operations. After a spate of violence in March 2022, Bukele declared a state of exception, rounding up more than 50,000 suspected gang members, including children. Suspects have appeared before judges en masse, with little access to lawyers or knowledge of the charges and evidence against them. Bukele’s government has also violated constitutional norms and procedures by replacing judges and enacting laws to censor the media.

And in Guatemala, a conservative president, Alejandro Giammattei, has removed dozens of independent judges, forcing many to flee the country by threatening them with dubious charges of misconduct. His government ousted the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor and reappointed an attorney general who faces U.S. sanctions for obstructing investigations. In July 2021, security forces detained journalist José Rubén Zamora, charging him with financial crimes, though many see the arrest as retaliation for his newspapers’ aggressive criticism.

However, the trends are not all negative. In a hopeful sign of democratic resilience, Honduras recently ended 12 years of one-party rule and elected its first woman president, Xiomara Castro. She took office in January 2022, demonstrating that presidential power can be transferred peacefully through democratic elections. To govern successfully, her leftist government needs to overcome the country’s bitter polarization and combat widespread corruption. Meanwhile, her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, is now facing trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Have efforts by the United States to “name and shame” corrupt and authoritarian actors in the region failed? What can and should be done to discourage the region’s apparent slide back into authoritarian rule?

Matute: Some activists argue that the United States has not gone far enough. They want the United States and other democratic nations to push international financial institutions — such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank — to place political conditions on multilateral loans. They also argue that the United States can use trade as a lever, conditioning bilateral and multilateral deals on respect for human rights, actions to curb corruption, and credible elections, since the United States remains the region’s primary trading partner.

But broader sanctions against Nicaragua or its neighbors could generate greater hardship in countries that are already among Latin America’s poorest, sending additional waves of migration toward the U.S. border.  

Sanctions alone are unlikely to halt Central America’s authoritarian drift. As the number of designated individuals and entities grows, the stigma of U.S. “naming and shaming” is likely to diminish. The United States and its democratic friends in the region need a more creative, problem-solving approach that more effectively links specific sanctions to clearly articulated demands. The goal should be to preserve and expand democratic space and protect crucial institutions, including the press. The United States should focus on greater support for local governments and civil society actors that promote the rule of law and address the needs of ordinary citizens, including by providing decent jobs, good schools, health care, water and electricity.

Central America’s authoritarian leaders have historically failed to deliver these benefits. Nor are today’s strongmen offering long-term solutions to the region’s endemic insecurity, poverty and corruption. The challenge is to show that democracy under the rule of law is not just an ideal, but the best way to improve the lives of ordinary Central American citizens.

Arturo Matute is a senior citizen security adviser for USIP.


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