Gang Violence Worries N.Va. Officials
Police Fear Crimes Could Signal Coming Turf Battles Between MS-13, Rival Groups
By Maria Glod and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page C06
Hours after he was charged with hacking a teenager's hands with a machete, Hayner R. Flores etched one of the most feared symbols in Northern Virginia on the glass window of his Fairfax County jail cell door.
The 18-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, sheriff's deputies said, scrawled "MS-13,'' the name of a street gang notorious for its violence. It was a defiant and brazen gesture, qualities that are emblematic of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha. The 16-year-old victim of the May 10 assault, police say, was a member of a rival gang, South Side Locos.
The recent machete attack, followed by the fatal shooting of a Herndon teenager by an assailant with an MS-13 tattoo on his forehead, have served as a wake-up call to the community about what police say has been a rapidly growing, and increasingly violent, problem in recent years.
Police in Northern Virginia universally point to MS as the most dangerous and fastest growing gang, with more than 1,200 members. MS-13 members have been linked to at least seven slayings in Northern Virginia in the past four years, including a federal witness, as well as numerous rapes, beatings and property crimes.
According to law enforcement officials, MS-13 is an international criminal enterprise with roots in El Salvador's civil war. They say it has established a foothold in Northern Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George's counties and in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in the District.
The gang's Northern Virginia members are split into subgroups, or cliques, that hang out and often hold mandatory meetings in parks -- sometimes disguised as soccer games -- but there is still little organized criminal activity, such as drug trafficking. They call themselves a family, collecting "dues" to post bail for a jailed member, yet they beat members who miss a meeting or fail to stand up to a rival gang. Unlike other crime organizations, police say, their lack of structure and hierarchy make them difficult to dismantle.
Bred in a culture of violence in their war-torn homeland of El Salvador, the largely Latino gang has been seeking to establish an East Coast hub in the Northern Virginia suburbs for a decade, police say. The first signs of trouble were spray-painted gang graffiti and boasting about gang affiliations, but things soon turned violent.
In 2001, Fredy Reyes-Castillo, 22, was beaten to death by four MS-13 members in a Reston park. The same year, a young mother was raped and killed behind her Seven Corners apartment and a reputed MS-13 member is awaiting trial on a capital murder charge in her death. In Prince William County, four Mara Salvatrucha members were arrested in 2002 after a 17-year-old told police she was "sexed in" -- initiated by having sex with six members.
"They have a violent reputation, and they want to maintain that," said James O. Towey, a Virginia assistant attorney general who has studied the gang.
A February memo to U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft from Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, said that gangs are a growing problem in Northern Virginia and that MS-13 is "by far the gang of greatest concern." Those worries have been echoed often by police, parents and school and community officials after the two recent episodes of violence.
Last week, a 17-year-old Herndon youth was fatally shot by a bicycle-riding assailant who has "MS" tattooed on his forehead, police said. No arrests have been made, and law enforcement sources said the victim, Jose Sandoval, may have been a member of the rival 18th Street gang. A 16-year-old girl who was with Sandoval was shot in the back and is recovering.
The shooting came less than a week after the 16-year-old Fairfax boy was attacked by several people, one wielding a machete, as he walked along Edsall Road early on a Monday morning. Police said the victim is a member of South Side Locos, a relatively new but growing multiracial gang that may have been formed by a disgruntled MS-13 member.
Just hours after he was charged with malicious wounding and participating in a street gang, Flores scratched "MS-13" and his nickname, Spike, into the window of his jail cell, Fairfax sheriff's officials said. They believe he used a zipper or a small piece of metal that is part of a plastic bracelet inmates wear. He was charged with destruction of property.
Although police said the latest attacks were unconnected, they worry that the sudden burst of brutality, possibly motivated by rival gangs competing for dominance in the suburbs, could bring even more violence.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Hayner R. Flores, 18, scratched "MS-13" into his jail cell window, Fairfax sheriff's officials said.
_____From The Post_____
U.S. Adds $500,000 to Gang Effort (The Washington Post, May 21, 2004)
Va. Man Had Warned About Son (The Washington Post, May 20, 2004)
Assailant Had Tattoo Of Gang, Police Say (The Washington Post, May 19, 2004)
Herndon Teen Killed In Suspected Gang Attack (The Washington Post, May 18, 2004)
Fairfax Teen Is Charged In Machete Wounding (The Washington Post, May 14, 2004)