May 1, 2007 8:42 PM ET
LA and El Salvador act over gang

The mayor of Los Angeles is forming a cross-border alliance with the president of El Salvador as part of a broader initiative to combat the gang violence that is costing the US city an estimated $2bn a year.

Antonio Villaraigosa will meet Antonio Saca, El Salvador's president, this week to discuss gang-related crime, which rose in Los Angeles by 15 per cent last year.

Although overall crime rates have fallen in Los Angeles, the rise of gang culture shows no sign of abating. Gangs are responsible for more than half of Los Angeles' murders and more than 70 per cent of shootings, putting a financial and social burden on the city's law enforcement agencies, schools and hospitals.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Villaraigosa said the gang problem was "transnational", describing Los Angeles as "the gang capital of America".

He recently earmarked $160m (Ä117m, £80m) to tackle the gangs, such as the Bloods, Crips and MS 13. "We have put together a strategic approach to addressing gang crime that focuses on gang hot spots, gang leaders and the most violent gangs."

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS 13, is one of Los Angeles' most violent criminal groups. It originated in El Salvador and has outposts in neighbouring countries, such as Guatemala and Honduras.

Mr Villaraigosa is working with US federal agencies to cut off the financial res-ources of gangs. "We're attacking the problem vertically and horizontally," he said.

The visit to El Salvador and Mexico comes as Mr Villaraigosa is being courted by candidates seeking the Democratic party nomination for next year's presidential election. As the Democratic mayor of the second largest city in the US, Mr Villaraigosa wields considerable influence within the party and commands great support in California's fast-growing Latino community.

His backing has become relevant because California has brought forward its presidential primary to February 5, increasing its importance as a key battleground state.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are seeking his endorsement. While he is known to be a big supporter of Ms Clinton he declined to comment on whether he would endorse her candidacy. "It's the deepest and most talented field of presidential candidates in recent memory, any one of whom would make a great standard bearer for our party."

Mr Villaraigosa has also become one of the leading voices in the push for reform of US immigration laws. Last year, he addressed a Los Angeles march to protest against proposed legislation that would have criminalised illegal immigrants. The march attracted more than 500,000 people, highlighting the Latino community's new role as a political force.

"Every nation has a right to enforce its immigrant laws and there have to be consequences for breaking the law," said Mr Villaraigosa. "But they have to be proportionate to the offence. Let's remember that these people are creating wealth and are making us competitive in so many ways.

"If they work here and pay taxes here and obey our laws there should be a pathway to citizenship."

He has other challenges to contend with, notably reform of the Los Angeles school system and meeting tough new targets on the emissions that cause climate change. He is also trying to rescind a ban against federal money being used in the construction of a subway system that would run from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

But Mr Villaraigosa insists the city's location and its vibrant creative industries are poised to make it more of a player on the world stage. "We are the Venice of the 21st century," he said. "We are the portal to Asia and to the south. We want Los Angeles to be the greenest, cleanest big city in America."

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