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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 01:24 GMT
Plea for gang violence crackdown
A man held during a police raid on a Mara 18 stronghold in El Salvador
Most members of the Maras gang cover themselves in tattoos
The mayor of the US city of Los Angeles has called for international efforts to deal with gang crime, saying his city was "ground zero" for Latino gangs.

Antonio Villaraigosa told the BBC that many gangs across North and Central America were started from his city.

Regional police chiefs are in LA to discuss fighting the gangs, blamed for a spree of murder, rape and robbery.

The three-day meeting will focus on improving co-operation and intelligence sharing to stop the gangs.

Rising gang crime

Mr Villaraigosa said there was a connection between poverty, low education levels, lack of job opportunities and gang membership.

These root issues needed to be addressed as part of a solution to gang violence in the United States and elsewhere, he said.

Where gangs are prevalent they run the neighbourhood and challenge you to join
Maureen, Florida

"Gang violence is a problem of international scope, and we must face it on a international scale," he said, quoted by AFP news agency.

"We must coordinate with our international counterparts in a smart and effective way."

In an interview for the BBC World Service Newshour programme, Mr Villaraigosa said that gang crime had risen in Los Angeles despite a drop in overall crime rates.

"This is a city that has a real problem," he said.

"And yet, this is the second-safest big city in America - violent crime is down five years running".

On Tuesday, the US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, announced the state department would fund a new transnational anti-gang unit for Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize.

Until now, the gangs have mostly been tackled on a country-by-country basis.

The heads of the national police forces of several countries where gangs are prevalent, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico are meeting officials from US drug enforcement agencies and the FBI.

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Mr Villaraigosa says LA has a major problem with gangs
Some Central American officials have expressed concern about US methods of deporting gang members to countries where local authorities are unable to arrest them because they have committed no crime in their country of origin.

Of the 120 people arrested in a recent anti-gang raid in El Salvador, 40 had been deported from the US at least once, the country's police chief Rodrigo Avila-Aviles said.

"I cannot blame the United States for deporting them," he added. "However... we need to look out for new mechanisms so we have more control over these guys."

Mayor Villaraigosa said increased funds and greater political will were needed to ensure gangs were tackled in the region in the long term.

The LA police chief on the gang crime problem

Central America bid to curb gangs
28 Feb 06 |  Americas
Gang life tempts Salvador teens
24 Jan 05 |  Americas
Combating El Salvador's gangs
20 Mar 04 |  Americas

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