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TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto police have arrested 17 people who they say are members of MS-13, a notorious street gang with roots in Latin America, after an investigation that highlights concerns about gangs expanding north into Canada's largest city.
The suspects are facing dozens of charges that include conspiracy to commit murder. They were arrested in 22 raids carried out on Wednesday throughout the Greater Toronto Area.
During a five-month investigation, police said, they learned MS-13 was targeting a member of Canada's justice system, but refused to be more specific.
"Within the judicial process there are police officers, there are correction officers, there are court officers, there are members of the bar and members of the bench. This investigation involves someone within that process," Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair told a news conference on Thursday.
The suspects are facing a total of 63 charges, and police said they seized 6.5 kg of cocaine during the raids.
Two years ago, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) identified MS-13 as the most significant street-gang threat in the United States, Blair said. Around that time the FBI started working closely with Canadian authorities to prevent the gang from getting a foothold in Canada, he said.
Even so, Blair said, "there are indications of MS-13 involvement in every large Canadian city, from Vancouver all the way to the East Coast."
The FBI's website says Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, has mostly recruited Salvadoran, Honduran, Mexican and Guatemalan nationals living in the United States, mostly in the Southwest.
Toronto has seen a sharp increase in gun violence in recent years involving street gangs claiming to be affiliated to notorious American gangs such as the Crips and Bloods. Chief Blair said those links are very tenuous, but MS-13 members show a higher level of sophistication.
"MS-13 is a transnational organized criminal gang and what we've seen is an attempt here to establish a Canadian field office."
Toronto police said some of the people arrested may have entered Canada from the United States by claiming refugee status for the purpose of setting up a criminal organization.
Reporting by Lionel Perron; editing by Frank McGurty