Gang Violence Worries N.Va. Officials
"Everyone is on a heightened sense of alert, but you can't really predict where it's going to happen," said Scott Mastandrea, a Loudoun County detective who is a member of a Herndon-based gang task force, made up of Northern Virginia gang investigators.
Largely in response to the gang's violence, state lawmakers have tightened laws targeting gang members and increased penalties for gang crimes. The FBI has made MS-13 and other violent gangs a priority, and federal prosecutors in Virginia opened a wide-ranging grand jury probe aimed at dismantling the gang.
Law enforcement officials say that perhaps the biggest, and most important, challenge is keeping them from growing. MS members have been recruiting younger and younger children, many from troubled homes, who choose the protection of the gang over fear of becoming one of its victims. Fairfax police have said children as young as 7 have been found with MS-13 graffiti on their notebooks.
New members, mostly teenagers, are drawn to gang life by the promise of companionship and status and often think of it as a family, gang investigators and school officials said. Many new recruits are recent immigrants seeking a sense of belonging in the community. Among the most powerful attractions, according to several law enforcement officials, is the promise that plenty of girls hang out with the gang.
"It offers you identity. It offers you status, and it offers you plenty of sex," one gang detective said. "You ask the kids why they join and they say, 'I like the way they carry themselves. I like the way they talk. I like the way they walk.' "
Mara Salvatrucha took root in Los Angeles during the mid-1980s with young men from El Salvador who fled the violent civil war in their country, many of them having received combat training, police said. A little over a decade ago, members began migrating to Northern Virginia, drawn by the established Salvadoran population. Even today they closely follow news of gang-related violence in their homeland, investigators say. They saw Northern Virginia as an appealing place where they easily could dominate loosely knit homegrown gangs. Members initially settled in the Culmore neighborhood near Baileys Crossroads but have expanded to Alexandria and Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties. More recently, Mara Salvatrucha's members have been moving west into the Shenandoah Valley and south toward Charlottesville, federal officials said. State officials said they have seen evidence of the gang in Danville and Richmond.
Although Mara Salvatrucha has been known to deal drugs, sell guns and steal cars, there is little structured criminal activity and a loose leadership structure, making it difficult to dismantle the gang by targeting top members, law enforcement officials said. Police said there are signs that the gang is seeking to become more organized, with MS-13 leaders in other cities, such as Los Angeles, encouraging more structure here.
But for now, violence is its hallmark.
"Out in California they are in the business to make money, but here they are in it to make a name for themselves," Mastandrea said. "Some guys are out to make money. Some guys are in it for the thrill of it. Some guys are in it for protection. Some of them don't see any other alternative."
Mara Salvatrucha's structure is so loose, one federal law enforcement source said, that every member of a clique is considered equally likely and willing to carry out violent acts. That makes MS-13 more violent and potentially harder to contain than, for example, Mafia groups that have clear leadership structures and lines of authority, he said.
"There's not a big disparity between the top and bottom," the source said. "That makes them more difficult to combat. You create a vacuum by going after someone, and a person with the same skill set can move up and fill the position."
Sudden and vicious attacks can be sparked by the smallest of slights, either real or perceived, gang investigators said.
In the June 2001 slaying in the Reston park, MS-13 members beat Reyes-Castillo and left him to bleed to death simply because he pretended to be a member of their gang, Fairfax prosecutors said. Three months later, Mara Salvatrucha members lured a man to an Alexandria park and nearly beheaded him because they mistakenly thought he belonged to a rival gang, federal prosecutors said.
"No disrespect goes unchallenged," said one local law enforcement source. "It could be that you looked at someone the wrong way. It could be that you went on their turf."
Knives and baseballs bats have been their weapons of choice, but police are seeing more handguns.
"Right now, the extent of their activities is something we are really trying to get our arms around,'' said Michael A. Mason, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office. Last fall, Mason created a new squad of agents to combat what he called rising gang violence in Northern Virginia and the District.
"It is imperative that law enforcement not wait until groups like MS-13 can grow roots and solidify . . . and develop that organizational structure that would make it more potent than it is today,'' Mason said.
© 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)