Johnny and Luzmila Campos fled their Arlington apartment five years ago after their eldest son was recruited by a violent Latino gang. They had high hopes for a quiet life in Fairfax County when they moved into a tiny rambler on Sheldon Drive.
Last weekend, their youngest son, Anthony, 15, was sitting on the steps of a nearby apartment with two friends when he was gunned down. The friends were wounded but survived. Anthony was killed almost instantly. Police believe gang members mistook him as a rival because of his clothes.
Anthony Campos's family has set up a memorial at home for the teenager, who was killed by alleged gang members.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
_____From The Post_____
Residents Voice Fears at Forum on Gang Growth (The Washington Post, Jan 30, 2005)
Md. Gang Member Guilty in Slaying (The Washington Post, Jan 29, 2005)
Teens Not Targeted In N.Va. Shooting (The Washington Post, Jan 26, 2005)
Family Says Slain Va. Teen Was Not Involved in a Gang (The Washington Post, Jan 25, 2005)
Gangs Sharpen Intimidation (The Washington Post, Jan 16, 2005)
"We moved here to get away from the gangs," Luzmila Campos, 40, said. "I talked to Tony all the time about not joining the gang."
The death of Anthony, who friends and family said was not a gang member, underscores a new kind of threat in the region. Ethnic gangs including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and South Side Locos have lured hundreds of local children as young as 9 into their fold over the past few years, investigators say. And that has given them leverage to spread fear and extend their reach even into the area's most affluent suburbs, where such parents as the Camposes struggle to keep their children safe.
Because the victims of violence and the targets of recruitment are so young, officials are forced to fight gangs not only on suburban streets, but also in middle and elementary schools and after-school clubs. Even in Fairfax, which is known for its good schools and low homicide rate, police believe gangs have a presence in every high school. In the eastern Fairfax neighborhood of Culmore, which the Latino gang MS-13 claims as its turf, dozens of children seek refuge after school at a Boys & Girls Club in the basement of a church.
Anthony's death brings to 12 the number of suspected gang-related slayings in Northern Virginia in the past four years, most committed by MS-13, authorities say. In August, MS-13 members surrounded Jose Escobar, 22, at a Prince William townhouse, slashed him along his neck and left arm and shot him in his chest.
In July 2003, the body of Brenda Paz was found near a brier patch off the banks of the Shenandoah River. Her throat had been so severely slashed that she was nearly decapitated. Paz, 17, was helping authorities in their investigation of several MS-13 members. Her boyfriend ordered her slaying from his prison cell.
In interviews, several gang members said that they joined MS-13 -- the largest Washington area gang with 2,000 members -- when they were young and impressionable and that they cannot get out. Gang life also ruined their chances of staying in school. Many were pressured to commit such crimes as robberies, machete assaults and property destruction at a young age.
"The problem is that juveniles are unpredictable and are notoriously irrational in their behavior," said Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office has worked with local authorities to fight the problem. "And that presents a challenge in and of itself to prevent them from thinking that this a great life."
For the five young Guzman brothers who live in a first-floor apartment off Vista Drive in Culmore, MS-13 is literally at their doorstep.
Gang members have scrawled "MS-13" in the hallway outside their door. Some children in the red-brick buildings in Culmore share crowded apartments with relatives and strangers who sport MS-13 tattoos on their arms. Other children, when they walk through courtyards, endure cackles and hoots from gang members straddling bicycles or hanging out of windows.
The Guzman boys, ages 3 to 12, hardly have enough space to play inside the three-room apartment they share with their parents and an uncle. Their bedroom floor is covered wall to wall with mattresses, and the family of eight shares one bathroom. The brothers, however, do not go out alone at night. They once witnessed a stabbing outside their bedroom window.
"Sending them home at the end of the day is a punishment for these kids," says Wonhee Kang, who runs a Boys & Girls Club in the basement of Culmore United Methodist Church as a haven for them. "I don't blame these parents for wanting to move away from this community for the safety of their kids. I'm actually very glad when they move out."
Culmore is home to MS-13's fastest-growing youth clique, Silva Loco Salvatrucha, according to gang members and detectives.