The major findings in a report by the Justice Department's National Gang Intelligence Center, which has not been publicly released, conclude gangs are the "primary retail-level distributors of most illicit drugs" and several are "capable" of competing with major U.S.-based Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.
"A rising number of U.S.-based gangs are seemingly intent on developing working relationships" with U.S. and foreign drug-trafficking organizations and other criminal groups to "gain direct access to foreign sources of illicit drugs," the report concludes.
The gang population estimate is up 200,000 since 2005.
Bruce Ferrell, chairman of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, whose group monitors gang activity in 10 states, says the number of gang members may be even higher than the report's estimate.
"We've seen an expansion for the last 10 years," says Ferrell, who has reviewed the report. "Each year, the numbers are moving forward."
'Growing threat' on the move
The report says about 900,000 gang members live "within local communities across the country," and about 147,000 are in U.S. prisons or jails.
"Most regions in the United States will experience increased gang membership … and increased gang-related criminal activity," the report concludes, citing a recent rise in gangs on the campuses of suburban and rural schools.
Among the report's other findings:
•Last year, 58% of state and local law enforcement agencies reported that criminal gangs were active in their jurisdictions, up from 45% in 2004.
•More gangs use the Internet, including encrypted e-mail, to recruit and to communicate with associates throughout the U.S. and other countries.
•Gangs, including outlaw motorcycle groups, "pose a growing threat" to law enforcement authorities along the U.S.-Canadian border. The U.S. groups are cooperating with Canadian gangs in various criminal enterprises, including drug smuggling.
Assistant FBI Director Kenneth Kaiser, the bureau's criminal division chief, says gangs have largely followed the migration paths of immigrant laborers.
He says the groups are moving to avoid the scrutiny of larger metropolitan police agencies in places such as Los Angeles. "These groups were hit hard in L.A." by law enforcement crackdowns, "but they are learning from it," Kaiser says.
MS-13 far-flung from L.A. incubator
One group that continues to spread despite law enforcement efforts is the violent Salvadoran gang known as MS-13.
Michael Sullivan, the departing director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, says the gang's dependence on shocking violence to advance extortion, prostitution and other criminal enterprises has frustrated attempts to infiltrate and disrupt the insular group's activities.
"MS-13's foothold in the U.S. is expanding," Sullivan says.
Kaiser says the street gang is in 42 states, up from 33 in 2005. "Enforcement efforts have been effective to a certain extent, but they (gang members) keep moving," he says.
MS-13 is the abbreviation for the gang also known as Mara Salvatrucha. The group gained national prominence in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where members were linked to incidents involving unusual brutality.
Since then, it has formed cells or "cliques" across the U.S., says Aaron Escorza, chief of the FBI's MS-13 National Gang Task Force.
The task force was launched in 2004 amid concerns about the gang's rapid spread. Gang members were targeted in broad investigations similar to those used to bust organized crime groups from Russia and Italy.
Among law enforcement efforts:
•Omaha: The last of 24 MS-13 members swept up on federal firearms charges and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine were sentenced last year in the largest bust since the group emerged there in 2004.
The gang's strength dimmed as a result, but the nine-month probe did not eradicate the group, says Ferrell, who assisted in the investigation.
•Nashville: During the last two years, 14 MS-13 members pleaded guilty on charges ranging from murder to obstruction of justice.
Davidson County, Tenn., Sheriff Daron Hall, whose jurisdiction includes Nashville, says MS-13 started growing there about five years ago, corresponding with an influx of immigrant labor.
Last April, county officials began checking the immigration status of all arrestees. "We know we have removed about 100 gang members, including MS-13," to U.S. authorities for deportation, Hall says.
•Maryland: Earlier this month, federal authorities said they had convicted 42 MS-13 members since 2005. More than half were charged in a "racketeering conspiracy" in which members participated in robberies and beatings and arranged the murders of other gang members, according to Justice Department documents.
In one case, Maryland gang members allegedly discussed killing rivals with an MS-13 leader calling on a cellphone from a Salvadoran jail, the documents say.
Escorza says a "revolving door" on the border has kept the gang's numbers steady — about 10,000 in the U.S. — even as many illegal immigrant members are deported.
The FBI, which has two agents in El Salvador to help identify and track members in Central America and the United States, plans to dispatch four more agents to Guatemala and Honduras, Escorza says.
"They evolve and adapt," he says. "They know what law enforcement is doing. Word of mouth spreads quickly."