Correction to This Article
An Aug. 8 Metro article incorrectly reported the number of Spanish-speaking officers in the Montgomery County police gang unit. As of this week, the unit has two officers who speak fluent Spanish and three who speak conversational Spanish.

Montgomery Long Ignored Gang, Some Say

The first stabbings on Friday happened at Springbrook High School, where two teenagers were injured. An argument apparently preceded the violence.
The first stabbings on Friday happened at Springbrook High School, where two teenagers were injured. An argument apparently preceded the violence. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 8, 2005

The warning was explicit: Don't bring drugs, don't be violent and, above all, don't bring weapons. But even as the teachers put students in Springbrook High School's summer program on notice last month, some Hispanic teenagers made faces and hand signs, in silent defiance.

Sonya Reyes, 15, watched the signals, and she was at the Montgomery County school Friday, the day the rules were shattered. Two students were stabbed with knives after school let out, and later, four more were stabbed at a Target in Wheaton.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) called the violence "a wake-up call," but Reyes had long ago woken up to this kind of world.

"It wasn't that big of a surprise to me," said Sonya, whose parents migrated from El Salvador.

For many Montgomery residents, the stabbings pulled them for the first time into the nether realm of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the region's most active Latino gang. For El Salvadoran immigrants, police officers and Hispanic leaders, the warning signs were visible.

Officer Luis Hurtado, the Latino liaison for the Montgomery County Police Department for the past 14 years, said yesterday that for years, he has sent memos to top officials calling for more measures to fight gang violence.

"We have been trying to ring the alarm forever," Hurtado said. "We have been saying somebody is going to get killed. It's gone on deaf ears."

As of yesterday afternoon, he had not been asked to join the stabbings investigation, he said.

Lt. Eric Burnett, a county police spokesman, said the department is doing as much as possible to increase its gang-related efforts.

He said the police had increased funding to combat gangs and were implementing recommendations that a gang-prevention task force issued last fall.

"You can never do enough," he said. "But we are actively doing things to get our officers trained and get out in the community."

MS-13, formed by El Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, has been operating since the 1980s. Its tentacles have spread into 30 states as well as parts of Central America.

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