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Los Angeles Summit Tackles International Gang Problem

International law enforcement authorities now meeting in Los Angeles say the problem of violent street gangs crosses borders. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, officials from Canada, Mexico, and Central America have joined their U.S. counterparts in a three-day gang summit ending Friday.

Authorities from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize are contending with street gangs that started in ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, then expanded as criminal enterprises after convicted felons were deported to their home countries. Today, violent groups with names like MS-13 and the18th Street gang straddle the borders.

Stephen Tidwell runs the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and says gangs are extending their reach in troubling ways.

"It is not so much new, as now that we have reached a point that there is such volume to it, and they have grown in their sophistication in how they are now running themselves," he said. "Their capacity to control areas, whether it be neighborhoods here or portions of neighborhoods and cities in Central and South America, they are learning every day how to do that better."

This week, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca announced cooperative efforts aimed at sharing intelligence, coordinating training and apprehending fugitive gang members.

Law enforcement officials who are meeting in Los Angeles hope to develop strategies to target the gang problem, which they say is pressing. In Central America, thousands of gang members engage in extortion and murder.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says gangs are responsible for most murders in his city, and more than two-thirds of its shootings.

As part of its new strategy, Los Angeles will publicize the names of the worst gangs that officials hope to dismantle. The approach has its critics, however, who worry the publicity will only glamorize the gangs.

The mayor believes, however, that a comprehensive strategy will make inroads with a problem that has plagued his city for decades.

"It is not a problem that we are going to address overnight," he said. "But if we address it comprehensively, if we address it local, state, and federal and even internationally, if we look at prevention, intervention, enforcement, as one continuum, we can address this issue."

He says gangs operate in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, and that intensified law enforcement must be combined with job training and efforts to keep students in school.

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood, but sees progress in the city's battle against gangs.

"Over the last five years here in Los Angeles, we have gone from 57,000 gang members, which is a huge number, down to 39,000," he said. "It is still way too many, but we have seen a 33 percent reduction in gang membership in LA. Some of the things that we are doing are working, so it gives me some hope that if we scale them up to the size of the problem, we might actually start to dismantle and disrupt the gangs."

He says in addition to stepped-up enforcement both in the United States and south of the border, the effort should target recruiters who try to bring young people into gangs, and offer alternatives to gangs for inner-city youngsters.