Federal agents and local police swept into Chelsea, Somerville, and East Boston yesterday in an attempt to arrest dozens of suspects, some believed to be members of a violent Salvadoran gang, on outstanding warrants.
The sweep, dubbed Operation 13, had been in the planning stages for weeks in response to crimes perpetrated by the MS-13 gang, said Chelsea police Captain Brian Kyes. He said the operation targeted up to 50 people and was headed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and included officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the Middlesex Sheriff's Department; police from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority; and local police departments.
Immigration advocates said families in Lynn, Revere, and Everett also reported arrests, but authorities in those cities would not confirm the accounts. The suspects in the raids were sought on weapons charges and for violent offenses.
Customs spokesman Michael Gilhooly confirmed the raids took place, but would not say how many people were arrested or where they were being held. Similar sweeps against MS-13 have taken place recently in Chicago, Omaha, and other cities.
As the law enforcement officials knocked on doors yesterday morning, panic spread among immigrants, apparently in fear that they would be swept up in another crackdown on undocumented workers. Some said they remained indoors because of the raids.
But federal officials were looking for specific people, Gilhooly said. "We don't do random operations. We are targeting specific individuals who are a threat to public safety."
The sweep unfolded on the same day as the local launch of a federal program that illuminates a different aspect of the government's immigration strategy. Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the US Office of Citizenship, unveiled a new effort at Boston's City Hall to encourage legal immigrants and US citizens to volunteer in their communities, learn English and American civics, and assimilate.
Customs would not confirm reports that yesterday's arrests were part of an antigang crackdown, but in 2005 the agency launched Operation Community Shield, a national effort targeting MS-13. Since then, federal authorities have expanded the operation to include all gangs, leading to the arrests of more than 4,800 alleged members of about 350 gangs across the country, according to the agency's website.
Some of the suspects being sought yesterday may have slipped through the net.
While federal authorities would not say how many immigrants they were seeking, MBTA Deputy Chief Paul MacMillan said a transit officer was part of a small group of law enforcement officials who scoured East Boston. "They came up empty after going to three houses," he said. "They couldn't find who they were looking for."
Relatives and co-workers of two of those detained described the operation as quick and efficient.
An East Boston man who identified himself only as Eric said that immigration officials entered his brother's apartment yesterday morning with a warrant for a man who no longer lived in the building. The agents arrested his brother, a permanent resident and native of El Salvador, after they discovered that he had been convicted of a minor alcohol-related felony three years ago.
"He's a hard worker," Eric said. "He's not a gang member. It was his bad luck that he was there." He said immigration officials are holding his brother at a federal building in downtown Boston, but he had no word on how long he would be detained.
In Somerville, immigration agents entered the A Plus Auto Body shop on Medford Street and arrested one man bearing a tattoo associated with MS-13, co-workers said. The manager of the shop, Tony Fragione, said that the man, who told his co-workers his name was Henry Morales, was one of the store's best employees.
"He worked all available hours," Fragione said. "He was a really nice kid. I feel bad for him."
The operation paralyzed parts of East Boston, Chelsea, and Somerville. A day-labor stand in Somerville, typically bustling with painters and dry-wallers, stood nearly empty at 9:30 a.m. Callers flooded a Spanish language talk-radio show with sightings or rumors of green-uniformed customs agents in their neighborhoods.
In East Boston, people said there was an eerie calm in banks and stores in Maverick Square.
"The streets of East Boston were barren," said Gail Viola, an employee of Sterlingwear of Boston, who visited a bank in the neighborhood around 10 a.m.
"People are scared," said Yessenia Alfaro, a community organizer at the Chelsea Collaborative, which received nearly 20 phone calls about the raid yesterday. "They don't know what's going on. They don't want to go out of their houses. It's just terrifying."
Rumors ran wild, sending some people into hiding. A Lynn man said immigration agents were at a local supermarket.
At Sterlingwear, a factory that makes wool peacoats and other gear for the US Navy, workers abruptly stopped cutting and sewing when WUNR 1600 AM reportedly broadcast, incorrectly, that immigration agents were on their way.
Workers frantically searched their pockets and purses for ID cards, said Jack Foster, director of marketing and sales. About a dozen of the 120 employees had forgotten their papers and went home to get them, he said.
"It's created a major panic here for no reason," said Foster, who said all workers had legal documents. "We were just dumbfounded by the whole thing."
The crackdown reflected concerns among law enforcement officials that MS-13 may be growing in New England.
The gang took root in Los Angeles in the early 1980s as waves of Salvadorans fleeing civil war in their homeland arrived there, said Susan Ritter, head of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Brownsville, who has studied MS-13.
Some of the refugees formed a gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, for protection after being repeatedly victimized by Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles, Ritter said. Trained by former Salvadoran guerrillas, the gang members became known for their vicious attacks and attracted members from elsewhere in Central America.
Members soon migrated to cities with significant pockets of Salvadorans or other Hispanics: Washington, D.C., Houston, New York, Detroit, and eventually Boston. The gang deals mostly in drugs, arms, and car theft.
Ritter said the gang's presence in the Boston is lower key than in other cities. "Maybe they're just getting started," she said.
Correspondent Javier Hernandez contributed to this report.