R. Alexander Acosta,
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
As the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, I am constantly amazed at the commitment and dedication of our office personnel and of the other law enforcement professionals in our district to our common mission of service to the people who live, work, and play here in sunny Southern Florida. Let me share with you a small part of our story.
Our office sees more than its share of cases, spanning a vast universe of criminal activity in both variety and intensity. I have been privileged to have oversight over major investigations and prosecutions covering almost every major law enforcement program area within the jurisdiction of the federal government. During the past 2 1/2 years, our office has handled major cases in the areas of child exploitation, narcotics, gang and firearms violence, national security, immigration, public corruption, bank and consumer fraud, domestic and international asset forfeiture, and civil and criminal health care fraud.
For example, we recently concluded a 4-month trial in United States v. Jose Padilla et al., successfully convicting three would-be terrorists of conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and maim individuals in a foreign country; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists; and providing material support to terrorists.
Last year, we concluded the 17-year string of investigations and trials that brought to a close the saga of the infamous Cali Cartel cocaine smuggling empire. We successfully extradited from Colombia, and prosecuted, the final leaders of the Cartel, the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers, who entered guilty pleas to narcotics and money laundering charges. They were sentenced to serve 30 years each in prison. They were also ordered to forfeit more than $2 billion in assets, including more than $300 million in business interests in Colombia.
These prosecutions, and others like them, have presented significant law enforcement challenges. The dedication and commitment of the agents, the prosecutors, and the members of our staff assigned to work on these cases have enabled them to successfully meet those challenges and to obtain outstanding results for the people of our district and the nation.
But there are few, if any, law enforcement challenges that pose a more immediate threat to the physical security of the residents of our district than those involving narcotics trafficking, criminal gangs, and gun violence.
Just 1 week into the New Year, the Miami Herald ran an article making this point clear.
- Miami-Dade County's 2006 homicide rate increased 40 percent from 2005. Of the 258 murder victims, 105 victims were African-American men.
- Broward County saw a similar pattern. Broward's 2006 homicide rate increased to 95, up 50 percent from 2005.
- Palm Beach too saw an increase, with homicides reaching 101, up 26 percent from 2005.
This last point is critical. Historically, about 65 percent of homicides in Miami were committed using guns. Last year, the figure jumped to 75 percent. Too many young men are dying in minor disputes turned deadly through the use of guns. Too many are killing each other in narcotics and turf warfare and, in the process, too many truly innocent residents are maimed or killed or living in fear, as they are too often caught in the crossfire between battling criminal gangs. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to meet this challenge and to helping the many law-abiding residents of these most vulnerable communities regain control of their neighborhoods.
As U.S. Attorney, I am committed to engaging all of our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners in the effort to rid our neighborhoods of narcotics trafficking, illegal gang activity, and firearms violence. Thus far, we have stepped up our law enforcement efforts:
- Along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and state and local law enforcement agencies, we have initiated a districtwide task force to focus on criminal gangs and gun violence.
- We have stepped up our firearms prosecutions, and to date we have accepted and prosecuted more than twice as many gun cases as we had at this time last year.
- We have enlisted the assistance of state prosecutors who have agreed to co-locate Assistant State's Attorneys with our Assistant U.S. Attorneys to facilitate identification and prosecution of habitual violent criminals who violate federal law.
We will also continue to pursue large-scale, long-term investigations of violent gangs and violent criminal confederations. Our recent Operation Lightning Bolt is an example. The operation initially focused on 10 suspected shooters and their associates who were connected with gang shootings in the Overtown and Liberty City sections of Miami. We pursued drug and gun charges against 92 defendants, 64 of whom were federally prosecuted. Sixty-two were convicted. Typical prison sentences ranged from 15 years to life.
Operation Lightning Bolt had a clear and visible effect on the Overtown community and is exemplary of one of the most effective law enforcement approaches we can take to rid specific neighborhoods of criminals who unrepentantly continue to diminish the quality of life for the residents of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Aggressive prosecution alone, however, is not enough. Law enforcement in our community recognizes the need to work with and empower residents to improve the quality of life opportunities offered to children and young adults in these vulnerable neighborhoods.
We do this primarily in conjunction with affected residents and our Weed and Seed and Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) law enforcement, local government, and nonprofit organization partners. In essence, as we remove the criminal elements from a community, we also seed the community with positive opportunities.
An example of this is a computer center that we recently funded at the Liberty Square housing complex under the Public Housing Safety Initiative (PHSI). The computer learning center is used by adults in the earlier part of the day and by children living in Liberty Square after school. Upwards of 40 children each day use the center and participate in tutoring, life skills training, and mentoring offered by the center staff. Our PHSI also funds a youth sports program that is tied to participation in academic performance monitoring, tutoring, training in conflict resolution, and similar leadership skills which will equip these young people to chart a course for a more productive future.
Significantly, PHSI activities have served as a catalyst for the neighbors, the residents of the development, and our Weed and Seed partners to initiate additional activities, including the following: a self-esteem mentoring program for young girls; a karate class, run by a Miami-Dade police commander, with upwards of 100 enrollees; a GED (General Educational Development) program for residents; and a program in cooperation with Miami Dade College that provides admissions and scholarship assistance, allowing residents to enroll in college courses.
Most significantly, the number of shootings on the premises of the development since we implemented PHSI has been reduced beyond our wildest expectations. Where residents once refused to cooperate with police, and saw them more often than not as a group to be avoided, there is now an avenue for useful dialog and cooperation. This improved relationship between residents and police, and PHSI-inspired law enforcement activity, has paid huge dividends. In the 34 months before PHSI-funded activities got underway, there were 15 homicides on the development property. In the 11 months that PHSI has been in operation, there have been none.
Throughout the Southern District, we have coupled similar resident empowerment efforts with our law enforcement activities. We have funded, through PSN and working with our Weed and Seed community partners
- Reentry counseling.
- Reentry coordinators and the establishment of regional reentry coalition working groups.
- Mentoring for children of incarcerated parents.
- Our DEFY (Drug Education For Youth) summer camp program.
- Several Safe Havens and computer labs.
- Computer assembly classes.
- Tutoring and life skills training programs.
- Youth leadership training.
- An award-winning antigang sports and personal skills empowerment training program.
All of these efforts have one common goal: to make and keep our neighborhoods safe and vibrant. We can achieve this goal. First, as a law enforcement community, we must cooperatively and aggressively prosecute those dangerous violent offenders whose criminal activity places at risk the lives of everyone around them. Second, we must also work with residents and our community-based partners to give residents the tools they need to make their neighborhoods, and all of the communities in our district, safer places for everyone.
R. Alexander Acosta
Southern District of Florida