Use all tools available to shut down gangs

Ten years ago, the idea of a high-profile, nationwide gang bust taking place in Charlotte would have seemed ludicrous. But on Tuesday, there was U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey in Charlotte announcing the arrest and indictment of 26 suspected members of the violent Salvadoran gang MS-13. Many of them were rounded up at apartment complexes in south Charlotte and near Mint Hill. Our suburbs.

Attorney General Mukasey said the indictments were the “latest sign of the gang's reach.” For us in Charlotte and the rest of the Carolinas, it's also a punch-to-the-gut realization that gangs – brutally violent gangs – are a big and growing problem here.

We delude ourselves about its impact at our own risk – and at the risk of those we hold dear. MS-13 members have been linked to four murders, drug trafficking and extortion in the Carolinas. The group, with more than 10,000 members in this country and El Salvador, has headquarters in Greensboro, Durham and Columbia as well as Charlotte.

More frightening, gang members are our neighbors. They live among us, appearing sometimes as law-abiding working-class residents. But they're often putting us – their clueless neighbors – in danger as they plot crimes and violence as part of their involvement in gangs.

MS-13 is not the only gang in Charlotte or elsewhere in the state. Authorities say there are about 1,800 gang members in Charlotte affiliated with 100 different gangs. Last year, federal and local authorities arrested 20 suspected members of the Hidden Valley Kings, a local gang that organized in the early 1990s. The Governor's Crime Commission says there are more than 550 gangs and almost 15,000 members statewide.

This year, the N.C. General Assembly has taken notice. Lawmakers have been working on a major overhaul of state law related to gangs. The N.C. Senate has sent to Gov. Mike Easley a bill, sponsored by Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte, that would require local Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils to develop strategies to address gangs. Lawmakers also could finish work this week on a more expansive bill that includes tougher criminal penalties for gang activity.

Tougher penalties are needed. Charlotte officers say it would help them immensely in combating gang violence. As Mark Newbold, police attorney with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, aptly noted: “Good anti-gang legislation supports both prevention and intervention, while at the same time ensuring that law enforcement has the tools to get the most dangerous gang members off our streets.”

These thugs are endangering our lives – and they don't care. We must use all the tools available to shut them down.