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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Kilgore statement linking MS-13 to al-Qaida criticized; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore overreached when he said al-Qaida could be working with Salvadoran street gang MS-13, Democrats said Monday.

But the candidate not only stands by his statements, he also chided the Democratic Party for not taking the potential threat seriously.

Kilgore made his comments on a Charlottes-ville radio talk show last week, during which he was discussing his stance on illegal immigration.

“When [gangs like MS-13 are] contacted by al-Qaida, to work in partnership with al-Qaida, then we have a problem and we need to fix that problem,” he said.

MS-13 is the street gang that grew out of El Salvador’s civil war and has now established a presence in Northern Virginia.

Two MS-13 members were sentenced to life in prison earlier this year for the 2003 murder of 17-year-old gang informant Brenda Paz near Mt. Jackson.

Kilgore’s statements were based on various media reports, including both The Washington Post and The Washington Times, spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Monday.

Democrats were quick to jump on the statement as proof that Kilgore isn’t in touch with the fight against gangs.

“It certainly was a thunderbolt to me,” Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s At-torney Richard Trodden said during a conference call organized by the Virginia Democratic Party.

“The gubernatorial candidate must know something I do not,” the Democratic prosecutor said. Fellow Democrat Randy Sengel, of Alexandria, said he agrees.

“We haven’t seen any evidence that MS-13 is connected to al-Qaida,” he said. “I think if Mr. Kilgore has information like this he ought to communicate it to the FBI and not try to score political points with it. I certainly have not seen any evidence to support his claim.”

Even mentioning Osama bin Laden’s organization in the same breath as MS-13 does a disservice to prosecutors who are trying to fight gangs as they work deeper into the commonwealth’s rural areas, Sengel said.

“One of the most difficult aspects of prosecuting these cases right now is the phenomenon of reluctant” witnesses, he said.
Lending MS-13, which has a violent enough reputation on its own, the “additional conspiratorial power” of al-Qaida doesn’t help convince witnesses to come forward, the prosecutors said.

“We’re not going to have international intrigue in any of our gang cases,” Trodden said. “Gangs are unfortunately a hot-button issue. It sounds like he just took it a bit too far.”

Kilgore and company are taking their lead from the federal government, though, Murtaugh said, and are “treating [MS-13] as a real homeland security threat.”

Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security James Loy told a congressional committee earlier this year that MS-13 had become a national security problem.

“Al-Qaida continues to be the primary transnational threat group, although we are seeing the emergence of other threatening groups and gangs like MS-13 that will also be destabilizing influences,” Loy said in February.

While it hasn’t made headlines recently, potential links between gangs and terrorism have been in the news.

Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez told reporters in 2004 that al-Qaida was courting Central American gangs to help them cross the Rio Grande.

FBI officials working to dismantle the gang have said they have no evidence of collusion between the two threats.

“If the Democrats choose not to heed the warnings of the Department of Homeland Security, that’s their business,” Murtaugh said Monday.