Cover Story

Criminals next door

"Criminals next door" Continued...

That thrust led to a coordinated effort to launch Operation Community Shieldóa nationwide immigrant gang dragnet that weaves together the resources of local, state, and federal agencies. Launched in February, the project gives top priority to fighting MS-13. So far it has resulted in 200 arrests from Los Angeles to Newark to Georgia.

The dragnet does not seem to have stemmed the spread of MS-13. In rapidly growing communities, MS-13 often fills in where the family has failed. Long workdays for parents leave the children to grow up without parents, said Del Hendrixson, a Dallas-area gang expert. The youth get caught up in whatever community they can find.

Ms. Hendrixson heads an outreach group to gang members called Bajito Onda (Underground Scene). In a former auto plant in east Dallas, she hires parolees and ex-gang members to work in her printing shop. Steady work and training, she says, turn displaced criminals into civilized humans. She designed Bajito Onda to resemble a gangó"but one for peace."

In the 20 years since she founded the group, she says thousands have been through her doors. They learn how to run printing presses, have their tattoos covered, and eat meals together. Stacks of letters from prisoners and local youth testify that Ms. Hendrixson is regarded as a parent or big sister. The United Nations has noticed her work by sending a flag and a plaque. But in Dallas, where downtown government and media pay little attention to what goes on in the barrio, she's largely ignored.

In two decades working with the Hispanic community and its gang problem, she says middle- and upper-class ambivalence toward working Hispanicsólegal or illegalóhas created a disconnect. Suburbanites may see "MS" spray-painted on a stop sign, but won't know whatóor whoóit stands for.

Ms. Hendrixson criticizes city leaders who commit resources to pick up gang members but ignore Hispanic youth searching for alternatives to joining Mara Salvatrucha. That, she says, takes time and compassion. "These are broken people," she says of the youth edging toward gang life. "People treat them like cockroaches. Spray something on them and hope they go away." For growing numbers of communities, that means disappearing into a life of crime.

With reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington, D.C.; John Dawson in Dallas; Jamie Dean in Charlotte, N.C.; and Lynn Vincent in San Diego.

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