Va. Task Force, Agencies Unite to Take on Gangs
Recent Attacks Inspire Crackdown
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page PW07
Law enforcement authorities in Northern Virginia are officially ganging up on the region's gangs.
Gov. Mark R. Warner's recent creation of a gang "strike force" made up of 12 Virginia State Police officers was the latest step in a spiraling state, local and federal crackdown. Two other gang task forces were created last year -- one by a Northern Virginia congressman and the other by the state attorney general. Authorities have cranked up a new FBI gang squad, and a federal grand jury in Alexandria is probing gang activity.
Officials say the blitz is needed to combat a growing problem highlighted by the gang-related machete attack that nearly severed the hands of a Fairfax County teenager and the slaying of a Herndon youth by an assailant believed to be a gang member.
"The more people addressing this, the more approaches and ideas you have, the better,'' said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R).
But experts are questioning whether the myriad resources amount to overkill, saying too many police officers could trigger turf battles and imperil coordination among agencies.
"Are they all going to play nicely together?'' said Susan R. Paisner, a Maryland-based criminologist and law enforcement consultant. "I'm just seeing bureaucratic snafus and way too many press conferences, and not enough of the real nitty-gritty, 'let's put our best investigators on this and leave them alone.' ''
Although law enforcement efforts are important, she said, gang prevention is more so. "If this is now your huge focus, what were you doing five years ago, when these 18-year-old kids were 13?'' Paisner said.
Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association and a national expert who has monitored Northern Virginia's anti-gang efforts, said the recent rash of news conferences is typical of communities that realize they have a gang problem.
"Once the blood gets deep enough and the bodies start to stack up, the politicians will start to pay attention,'' he said. "They haven't done that in Northern Virginia until now.''
McBride noted that the Virginia approach of creating multi-jurisdictional task forces differs from how Los Angeles has fought its epidemic of gang violence. But he said that's mainly because Los Angeles County's vast size makes it less likely for the estimated 100,000 gang members there to cross state -- and even county -- lines.
Northern Virginia's "area is smaller, so you have guys going from state to state to do crimes, so you need federal help across state lines," he said.
The heightened awareness of Northern Virginia's growing gang problem stems from a recent spasm of violence. The 16-year-old victim of the May 10 machete attack, police say, is a member of the Southside Locos, a new and growing gang. Police have charged Hayner R. Flores, 18, with malicious wounding and gang participation. They say Flores is a member of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, Northern Virginia's most violent gang and the focus of much of the recent attention.
Days after the machete attack, a 17-year-old Herndon youth was shot to death by a bicycle-riding assailant who had "MS" tattooed on his forehead, police said. Law enforcement sources have 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.
In the news conference announcing his strike force, Warner (D) pointed to the Herndon shooting as an example of a case in which the new team of officers could have been called in to help with the investigation.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company