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Gangs Sharpen Intimidation

Machetes Used Increasingly in Attacks

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page C03

The former gang member recalls watching them spread the newly purchased machetes from Springfield Mall on the bed and marvel at their sexiness. With reggae music booming in the background, the South Side Locos gang members began touching the steel blades and gripping the black handles.

They wanted revenge. One of their own, a 16-year-old boy, had just been brutally attacked in the Alexandria area by machete-wielding rivals in Mara Salvatrucha, the dominant gang in Northern Virginia. He had lost four fingers trying to shield his head from the blows, an incident so gruesome, audacious -- and seemingly new -- that it galvanized the Washington region to the surging gang populations.

Two machetes were among weapons recently seized from suspected gang members. They can be bought for less than $10 at many stores. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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Police Investigate Machete Attack in Fairfax (Associated Press, Jan 4, 2005)
D.C. Jury Convicts 3 in Deadly Gang Plot (The Washington Post, Dec 30, 2004)
Where Sugar and Spice Meet Bricks and Bats (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
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The machete attack in May also inflamed an already tense gang rivalry, inciting South Side Locos members to match MS-13 with equal menace and buy their own machetes. The long, curving knives -- bought and sold at many military surplus and hardware stores largely for clearing brush -- have joined baseball bats as weapons of choice for Northern Virginia gangs.

"We all just wanted revenge and thought, 'The first MS member I see, I am going to bang him,' " said the 20-year-old former South Side Locos member in Fairfax County who recounted watching fellow gang members return from the mall with machetes. He did not want to be identified out of fear for his safety.

"People respected MS after that attack. More gangs are going to start using machetes as a weapon. They're so big and sexy. They can leave you scarred for life -- the wounds are never going to heal. With a machete, you can corner someone and it's not going to make any noise."

Another machete attack came just two weeks ago. A Fairfax man, 24, was leaving a movie theater with a friend when several suspected MS-13 members -- one of them carrying a machete -- attacked him and cut off three of his fingers.

Machetes have been used as weapons for years. But they are being wielded by gang members more frequently to damage property or to intimidate, law enforcement officials say. In the past two years in Fairfax, machetes were mentioned in 40 police reports -- ranging from random suspicious persons to gang-related incidents.

Khalique S. Zahir, a surgeon at Inova Fairfax Hospital who operated on the South Side Locos boy's hands last year, said he has seen machete wounds on scalps, fingers and legs.

"Machetes are much more destructive than knife wounds because they traumatize the tissue," Zahir said. "They're very challenging, because you often have to make decisions at the last minute about what you can salvage and what you can't."

Sgt. Richard Perez, a Fairfax police spokesman, remembers settling down for a dinner break at a fast-food restaurant near Baileys Crossroads several years ago when a shirtless man staggered inside. He appeared under the influence of narcotics and seemingly harmless, until Perez noticed something: a shiny steel tip protruding from the back of the man's arm. He was hiding a machete.

"As soon as I saw that, I backed out of my seat and created distance," Perez recalled. "When he brandished the knife, I didn't go for my pepper spray, I went for the firearm."

The man, who was not a gang member, fled, but police found him the next day, Perez said.

Sensing the growing popularity of machetes, Virginia legislators passed a law last year that included them in a list of weapons -- including guns, bowie knives and switchblades -- that cannot be concealed.

Northern Virginia gangs, mostly made up of Latinos with roots in Central America, have a cultural connection to the machete. In their homelands, the tool is an inexpensive and effective farming implement for harvesting sugar cane. In some parts of Africa, the machete is widely used in root crop and vegetable fields. The red and black flag of Angola, in southwestern Africa, features a machete atop half a cogwheel to represent the country's agricultural laborers. But the tool has also come to symbolize the continent's genocides and civil wars in places including Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

In the United States, machetes can be purchased in such stores as Home Depot and Lowe's. At the Lowe's off of Sudley Road in Manassas, the $8.98 Corona machete, with an 18-inch blade, is the 27th best-selling tool out of 82 gardening tools, said Jeanne Williams, an assistant department manager at the store. She said the store has no minimum age for buying a machete.

Other stores, including the Sports Authority, have policies that prohibit the sale of any knives to anyone younger than 18. Michael Wiley, co-manager at the store in Springfield Mall, said machetes typically are on sale in the spring for the gardening and camping season. But as with any potentially harmful product -- from a baseball bat to a gun -- it is difficult to know why it is being purchased. "If we know someone's intent, we shut the sale down."

Mark Richards, 43, owns Full Metal Jacket, an Alexandria military supply store that sells about 100 machetes a year to people older than 18. He uses one to cut overhanging tree branches on his driveway and to clear jungle paths on hunting trips in Africa.

"It's just another tool that lives in the toolshed that has its use from time to time," he said.

About two months ago, three teenagers walked confidently into a Fairfax military surplus store, said store manager Ian McShane. The youths looked somewhat suspicious. Even though one teenager was 19, McShane did not feel comfortable making the sale.

"They didn't seem like the kind of people who were going to use it for cutting brush or landscaping," he said. "If we sold it, it could have fallen into the wrong hands."

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