Dozens of illegal immigrant gang members from Mexico and other countries have been swept up in the past two weeks by federal agents and Twin Cities-area police, officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Thursday.

Called Operation Community Shield, the ongoing effort netted 50 arrests, including 35 gang members and seven gang associates from 10 Twin Cities-area gangs. Of the 50 arrested, 38 are illegal immigrants, said ICE spokesman Tim Counts.

Participating law-enforcement agencies also arrested 10 U.S. citizens and two permanent residents, also known as green-card holders, on various state and federal charges, including weapons possession, possessing illegal drugs and criminal traffic offenses. Twelve of those arrested have previous convictions, including assault, drug possession, criminal damage to property, burglary, disorderly conduct and drunken driving.

Of the illegal immigrants arrested, Counts said, 29 come from Mexico, six from Honduras, two from El Salvador and one from Ecuador.

Counts said most of the arrests were in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But police and agents also swept up gang members in Richfield, Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Crystal, Maplewood, Columbia Heights and West St. Paul.

Federal prosecution

Officials are moving to deport the illegal immigrants arrested, Counts said. But three suspects will be referred to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution -- two for re-entering the United States after previously being deported and one for possessing a controlled substance. It is a felony to re-enter the United States after going through formal deportation proceedings. They face up to 20 years in federal prison.

Operation Community Shield is a nationwide effort to go after what ICE calls "transnational street gangs." About 10,000 gang members from 700 different gangs have been apprehended since the effort began in February 2005.

Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Bloomington, was the architect of Operation Community Shield when he worked in Washington, D.C.

"Street gangs pose a growing public-safety threat to communities throughout Minnesota," Arnold said. And foreign-born gangs pose a "huge problem" for communities, he said. Because gang members are from other countries, they often maintain relationships with criminals abroad, fueling ongoing smuggling operations of drugs, weapons and people, Arnold said.

Local agencies

Working with local law enforcement is critical to dismantling them, he said.

Locally, ICE worked with several agencies, including the Metro Gang Strike Force, Brooklyn Park Police, Richfield Police, the State Patrol, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The two-week effort began July 28 and ended Aug. 9, Counts said.

"It's made an impact, and it's helping us gather additional information on the gangs and the gang members. And, as long as they're locked up, they're not shooting anyone," he said.

Jim Heimerl, assistant commander of the Metro Gang Strike Force, said, "A lot of people think that everybody who comes to Minnesota just wants to live here, wants to work here. But these guys, they victimize people."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428