LOS ANGELES, JUNE 15 -- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), along with state officials, arrested more than 170 suspected gang members in nine states in a two-day sweep expected to conclude tonight. The first national crackdown aimed at the street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, resulted in 134 arrests here.
"What began as a Los Angeles problem has now spread to a national one," Stephen E. Higgins, BATF director, told a news conference. The Crips and Bloods have been identified in 32 states and 69 cities outside of California.
"We want to stop these groups before they get settled in other areas," Higgins said. Arrests were made in California, Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana. Two additional states were involved in "Operation Streetsweep" but were not immediately named.
The bureau's investigation tied Crips and Bloods members to drug trafficking, distribution of firearms and violent crimes nationwide.
The illegal acquisition of firearms is increasing because of cocaine trafficking activities and territorial disputes among gang members, who favor assault-type weapons over small caliber rifles and handguns, according to BATF officials. The sawed-off shotgun is a particular favorite among gang members.
"As the Crips and Bloods expand, so has the violence," said Higgins, who said he has watched the spread of the gangs for the past four years. "Drugs and violence go hand in hand."
BATF agents, armed with more than 100 federal and state warrants, began arresting suspected street-gang members Thursday.
In the heart of south-central Los Angeles, where the Crips and Bloods originated, more than 40 BATF agents along with local authorities surrounded a two-story apartment building, home to members of the 74th Street Hoover Crips gang. As a police helicopter hovered overhead, agents searched the complex. Three suspected gang members with outstanding warrants were handcuffed and brought outside, and a person from an adjacent apartment building also was arrested. No firearms were found, but a undisclosed quantity of cocaine was seized.
Later, agents targeted an alleged crack house run by a Bloods gang, the 62nd "Six Deuce" Brims. Again, no firearms were found, but handgun ammunition and crack cocaine were seized. Three suspected gang members were arrested.
"We've told the communities that we support them. . . . This is our way of showing them our support," Higgins said of the bureau's Operation Streetsweep, which was conducted in coordination with local police departments and the U.S. Marshal's office.
Similar operations occur every week in the Los Angeles area, according to Rod Watson, a BATF supervisor here.
Legislation passed in the last few years has helped BATF combat the growing number of firearms in the hands of street gangs by making it a federal crime to carry a firearm during drug trafficking or a crime of violence. The first conviction carries a mandatory sentence of five years in prison; the second carries a 20-year sentence.
The bureau said that it prosecuted 4,599 persons for firearm violations last year. Of those, 221 were suspected Crips and Bloods gang members found with 360 weapons.