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Hunting outlaw bikers from foreign lands

Hunting outlaw bikers from foreign lands

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Far from the much-publicized controversies along the Mexican border, federal immigration and customs agents have been deep in the duties of law enforcement at the Sturgis rally.

From a mobile, state-of-the-art operations center in a state Department of Transportation compound in Sturgis, or hovering above the town in a Blackhawk helicopter, agents for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement - commonly referred to as ICE -- rely on high-tech surveillance gear to monitor key rally activities.

They also mix with other law enforcement officers and with regular rally-goers as they watch for foreign members of outlaw motorcycle gangs who have managed to get into the United States by concealing a criminal past.

Sturgis and its hundreds of thousands of bikers is a rumbling world of opportunity for such international lawbreakers and the agents who pursue them.

"I think at just about every rally we've had at Sturgis, we've had folks here illegally," South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said. "So we know they're here, and the Department of Homeland Security and ICE know who they're looking for and why they're looking for them."

Johnson declined to discuss specific incidents. But he said ICE agents also are watching for other illegal aliens at the rally, outside of outlaw biker gangs.

"Whenever you have as many workers coming into an area as Sturgis does, you're going to have folks here who are working illegally," he said.

The work of the ICE agents, who operate within the Department of Homeland Security, doesn't end with illegal aliens. They also work on a variety of criminal activities -- trade, travel and finance -- particularly when it has an international connection.

A key area of work at the rally is trademark violations. Agents have made seizures this year of merchandise with counterfeit trademarks, Johnson said. That is especially important to the city of Sturgis, which benefits from the proceeds from the sale of items bearing its rally trademarks, Johnson said.

"I think that's a very important role for ICE, and they've been active in working with the city to make sure that trademark is protected," he said.

Johnson said the fluctuating ICE presence in Rapid City stabilized last year with a larger full-time staff. Its staff joined ICE agents from elsewhere for an even bigger presence at this year's rally, which included agents, the command center and a Blackhawk helicopter and crew.

The helicopter works in unison with the surveillance equipment in the command center to provide aerial views at the rally, Robinson said. It can also provide added mobility for law enforcement, particularly in emergencies.

"We've been using the Blackhawk for an overview of the venues on the ground, and in case of emergencies where traffic is backed up and you can't get to something quickly," said Don Robinson, the ICE resident agent in charge in Rapid City.

The bigger ICE presence at the rally this year initially caught some local law-enforcement officials off guard. That happens, Johnson said.

"Any time you have all these agencies, you're probably going to have some challenges with communication," he said. "But by and large, the agencies are working together very well."

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said there "could have been better coordinating at the beginning" but also appreciates the resources brought by ICE. "They seem to be fitting in well. We're sharing information, working together well."

The ICE command center has capabilities that a mobile state Division of Criminal Investigations operations center nearby doesn't have, Jackley said.

"We don't have the level of technology that some of the federal agencies have," Jackley said. "It's impressive. It allows them to do a lot of things. And those are things we can take advantage of at the rally."

ICE agents focus on immigration and customs issues but also target illegal drugs and weapons at the rally, Jackley said.

"The fact of life is that the drugs we're dealing with are not being manufactured in Sturgis. They're coming from the southwest border," he said. "So when you deal with immigration enforcement, you're also sometimes dealing with drug smuggling and sometimes firearms smuggling."

Whatever the crime, ICE agents this year have been involved with more than 70 arrests at the rally, which is much greater involvement than in previous years, Johnson said.

"What you see at the rally is a great deal of interagency law enforcement cooperation," Johnson said. "Especially in rural states like South Dakota, that has to happen. We can't afford to have arbitrary lines between federal, state and local government."

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or



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