DALTON, Ga. — The three Mexican nationals arrested in Whitfield County as part of a statewide sweep led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, belonged to the Fifth Avenue gang and Tiny Winos gang, federal agents said.
The three were among 127 immigrants with gang ties arrested in Georgia.
The Tiny Winos gang was linked to the shooting death last year of 16-year-old Andre Johnson, and the arrests reinforced for some residents that gangs still operate here.
“It does show that there are obviously still gangs in our area,” said Paul Tipton, a GOP candidate for sheriff.
Still, Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said the gang problem in Dalton has actually subsided in recent years.
“Three or four years ago ... there was a lot of publicity on gangs in our community,” he said, “but fortunately we’re now seeing a decline in their presence.”
Local, state and federal authorities collaborated on the arrests. The investigation was part of ICE’s nationwide Community Shield operation, launched in 2005 to dismantle international street gangs in the U.S.
In Dalton, the presence of ICE agents in April spurred rumors among immigrants of mass raids. But, the arrests last week went over relatively quietly in the immigrant community.
“Believe me, if they were here to get gang members, everybody is happy about that. Nobody wants them around,” said Francisco Palacios, a local business owner.
Officials wouldn’t release the names of the gang members arrested here, but, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez did release their ages, saying they were 18, 19 and 20 years old.
One gang member was a permanent resident, while the other two were in the U.S. illegally.
Gangs here are often linked to Whitfield County’s burgeoning immigrant population, said David Nahmias, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. “Immigrants often don’t have deep community ties, and so their children are more susceptible to the lure of gangs,” he has explained.
And former Georgia Bureau of Investigations Agent Claude Nix, also a Republican candidate for sheriff, believes that illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and gang members often travel along the same routes to cross the border.
“To say there’s no connection (between gangs and illegal immigration) would be naive,” said Mr. Nix.
The ICE operation in Georgia last week nabbed 127 gang affiliates from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
But, especially since the death of Andre Johnson, law enforcement and community members in Whitfield County have stressed that gangs aren’t only a problem among Hispanics.
City Administrator Butch Sanders spoke about the gang problem at a community forum last year after the shooting. “We do not have a Hispanic-American problem or African-American problem or a white-American problem,” he said. “What we have is a human-American problem.”
District Attorney Kermit McManus even revealed in December that 16-year-old Andre, who was biracial, actually claimed the Crips gang himself.