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
Stabbings Called Result Of Lax Prevention Effort

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.

In the Washington region, it has largely operated in Northern Virginia. But the gang and its offshoots are gaining influence in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, police officials said.

Friday's stabbings were the most serious gang-related violence in the county. The 1:15 p.m. incident at Springbrook, which is in the Colesville area, involved five to seven attackers and left two stabbed, apparently after an argument. Four hours later, four young men were stabbed at Target in Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton. All the victims are expected to live.

Police said they believe both cases involved people in rival Salvadoran gangs. County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger refused to name the gangs, but other officials have said MS-13 was involved in the Springbrook incident. It is unknown what motivated the stabbings, and police have not said why they believe gangs were involved.

On Saturday, police arrested six young men, four of whom live in Silver Spring, and charged them with first-degree attempted murder and other crimes.

"I think anybody who's been watching the gang activity in the county, and anybody who's been watching MS-13 in particular, would have expected this type of incident," said Assistant Montgomery State's Attorney Jeffrey T. Wennar.

But for much of the past decade, authorities seldom viewed the rise of MS-13 as a serious problem. By the end of 1990s, when gang-related crime slowed, the attention was lost, Hurtado said.

Wennar agrees. During that "lull in the gang problem," he said, the county did not adequately focus on prevention. He noted that the county's health department eliminated a full-time staff employee who dealt with gang issues.

"When you have something in place, you can't declare a victory and discard what you have," he said.

About a year and half ago, Hurtado began getting calls from judges, school officials and community members. They were all talking about Latino gangs, MS-13 in particular.

By then, Montgomery was at a sharp disadvantage, Hurtado said. Public schools didn't have enough programs to occupy young people. About two years ago, the schools eliminated DARE, a national drug prevention program, because of budget issues and the need for more classroom time.

Officers were not properly trained to reach out to Latinos, Hurtado said. Today, only two police officers in county schools speak Spanish, he said, and none of the officers on the county's gang task force does.

"We are extremely good at doing the enforcement," Hurtado said. "But the part we always fail to recognize is the community, the prevention side."

Assistant Police Chief William C. O'Toole said the department is working hard to increase its diversity. Of the 47 people in the department's current class of recruits, five are Latino and 11 are fluent in Spanish, he said.

To many Salvadoran immigrants, responsibility also lies within their community. Their U.S.-born children often feel alienated, while parents work round-the-clock. Those children struggle at school, have no role models and look to gangs for a sense of belonging.

As she left church yesterday, Sonia Reyes, Sonya's mother, said that Salvadoran parents need to confront their children about gangs but that they seldom do.

"They ignore the problem because they've come to this country for money, to build their house back home, to support their family back home," she said.

"Their children return to a house, but never a home."

Staff writer Fulvio Cativo contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company