Gang violence is something law enforcement officials say starts at the local level, in neighborhoods of cities across the country, and Nashville is no exception.
But a significant change has been made here to curb the violence and it’s a change that could affect the entire nation.
Almost a year ago, 14 members of the brutally violent El Salvadorian gang La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, were indicted on racketeering charges stemming from at least three murders, seven attempted murders and a rash of violence in Nashville.
Three of the 14 have been sentenced in the last two months, receiving 19- and 20-year sentences for their involvement in the attempted murders of rival gang members and a confidential informant.
Special Agent Jim Cavanaugh with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) said this is a significant step for Nashville, and more importantly, for the country.
“It’s significant that we got these long sentences for these violent gang members,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s very significant for Nashville and really for the country that we got these long sentences on these gangs members.”
Cavanaugh first told reporters Jan. 10, 2007, about MS-13 and it’s reign of terror on the city, describing the gang as a “pack of jackals” who “left a group of bloody victims in their wake.”
He said last week he could not comment on specific details of the case because 11 members are still awaiting trial, but that because of these long sentences, gang members will remain off the street, unable to commit violent crimes.
This case in Nashville is only one of two cases nationally that’s slowed down the gang’s criminal activity.
Nineteen men were indicted on racketeering charges in Maryland in 2005 in what media reports say was “the most aggressive legal assault in the Washington region on a Latino street gang.”
It is believed that several of the men indicted here in Nashville had ties to gang members in Maryland, even participating in the threatening and shooting of a confidential informant who had provided information about the gang to federal officers in Maryland, according to the initial indictment.
The indictment goes on to detail a sophisticated organization. Members of MS-13 are required to attend regular meetings, pay dues and participate in violence against other gangs to maintain their membership. The group also has a stash of firearms used to commit the acts of violence, according to court records.
One Metro Police gang expert said the indictment has curbed the criminal activity in Nashville among the Hispanic population, mainly because almost all members of the group here were included in the indictment.
“As far as the crime within the Hispanic gangs, it’s cut down, I’d say, 80 to 90 percent,” said Sgt. Gary Kemper of the Metro Police Gang unit.
Kemper said typical groups of MS-13 gang members are small in number.
He said last week he suspects more of the remaining members in Nashville will take plea deals before reaching trial, but could not comment on specifics of the case.
ATF agents said a key building block in securing indictments like the ones here and in Maryland is a close partnership with the local law enforcement agencies, oftentimes the only ones who have close contact with the members and notice gang trends within the city.
“Really, it starts from the ground up and that is almost always, if not 99 percent of the time, with your local law enforcement,” said Agent Todd Reichert. “They are the ones that respond to everything that happens.”
Reichert said the ATF is able to bring additional resources and the ability to focus those resources on specific areas after becoming involved in a case like Nashville’s.
U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell, in Nashville last month, ordered that plea agreements remain under seal for seven of the 14 defendants in order to help keep defendants and their families safe from retaliation.