Washington - Swinging a machete in a threatening way could soon be a punishable offence in the state of Virginia.
The Virginia legislature is crafting a bill that applies specifically to machetes, as absurd as that sounds. The reason is that machetes are a favourite weapon of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS- 13, which is among the most infamous and dangerous street gangs in the United States.
Founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by El Salvadorans, MS-13 has spread across the US like the tentacles of an octopus, and is blamed for carrying out such heinous crimes that laws are being tailored to control the organization.
The violence includes the decapitations of victims, especially rival gang members, and the chopping off of hands.
Local officials find themselves at a loss over what to do as the sheer size of the problem, aggravated by poor economic conditions, overwhelms them. The problem was a main topic last June at a meeting of the foreign ministers of the 34 members of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Florida.
Many of the gang members are young boys from El Salvador and Honduras who come legally or illegally to the United States to join their parents after being raised by their grandparents at home. Left on their own in the US with little knowledge of English, they have turned to criminal gangs that wreak terror in their communities.
Mara Salvatrucha - mara means 'gang' in Latin America - is one of the most violent and rapidly growing parts of an expanding criminal gang scene in the United States, officials say. Fighting MS-13 has been called a public safety priority for immigration and customs enforcement officials.
But MS-13 is not the only gang spreading shock and fear in many US communities. After years of relative calm, the rate of crime attributed to street gangs - from drug trafficking and weapons offences to rape, murder and manslaughter - has increased so alarmingly that officials have combined on different levels in retaliation.
In a joint two-week action that culminated in mid-March, 375 suspected gang members, including 50 leaders, were arrested in 23 states and Washington, the capital.
The dragnet was part of Operation Community Shield, which began a year ago and which has resulted in the arrest of almost 2,400 people. More than 900 of the people arrested belong to MS-13, the remainder belong to 238 other gangs, according to authorities.
Despite the success of investigations thus far, it's only a drop in the bucket in a struggle that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff compared with the US campaign against terrorism.
Operation Community Shield represents the first time the federal government has used immigration and customs authorities in a combined, national campaign against criminal street gangs in the United States, Chertoff said.
A study of the threat conducted by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators' Associations said all large US cities and more than 80 per cent of medium-sized cites had registered increased problems with street gangs. From 1999 to 2002, the number of gang murders increased 50 per cent, according to a police commission calculation.
There are about 30,000 different street gangs in the United States, according to an FBI estimate. Many of them are international, largely with ties to Central America. The names often speak for themselves: the Asian Dragon Family, Street Assassins, Spanish Gangster Boys, Pistoleros Latinos and Big Time Killers.
The total number of street gang members in the United States is estimated at as many as 800,000. MS-13, described as a hard-core gang, has an estimated 10,000 members, Chris Swecker, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, told Congress last year.
MS-13, which has ties to the Mexican mafia, has kept investigators busy by using sophisticated operations. For example, it extorts money from illegal immigrants. Also, as it has spread rapidly, MS-13 is the main target of Operation Community Shield.
There are several reasons for the return of street gangs. Thousands of gang members who were imprisoned as a result of massive anti-gang operations in the early 1990s have served their sentences and have been set free. Many of them have built new networks.
Authorities were not ready for their return. Almost all large cities drastically reduced their anti-gang units after the success of the clampdown against the gangs 15 years ago. <!--page-->
In addition, the territory of the gangs is now different from what it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's no longer limited to the major cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles where infamous gangs like the Crips and the Bloods - both still active - fought bloody battles over crack cocaine and struck fear into drivers who mistakenly drove into their street jungles at night.
Increasingly common are gang cells that are active in smaller cities and in middle-class suburbs. The FBI estimates there are as many as 1,500 members of MS-13 in the Northern Virginia area just outside Washington. The internet and cell phones have increased their ability to communicate.
US immigration authorities are active in Operation Community Shield because numerous gang members also are illegal immigrants. Many of the people arrested are deported to their native countries, with El Salvador and Honduras two of the top destinations.
As a result, gang-related crime has ricocheted back into the countries where the gangs originated.
© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur