The Reality of Gangs

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

THE STABBINGS of six teenagers in Montgomery County last week spotlight the brazenness and viciousness of the criminal gangs to which the assailants apparently belonged. According to one report, at least one of the victims was attacked because he had refused to join Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the most pervasive of the Salvadoran gangs to have sunk their malevolent roots in the Washington area during the past couple of years; other reports said all six victims were members of a rival gang. Four of the six stabbings occurred in a Target store at a mall in Wheaton, in full view of horrified shoppers.

Incredibly, for a gang that was barely known a few years ago beyond Los Angeles and El Salvador, MS-13 is now believed to have about 5,000 members in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District. This group and others are responsible for a growing number of homicides, rapes and beatings that defy the general downward trend of violent crime in most of the region's jurisdictions (Prince George's County being the glaring exception). Until now, Northern Virginia has borne the brunt of this new wave of gang brutality; Fairfax County police say gangs have made inroads into every high school in the county. But the Maryland suburbs have not emerged unscathed, as evidenced by not only the stabbings in Wheaton and Springbrook High School in Silver Spring last Friday but also by a number of gang-related murders. Gang violence has landed in this region with a vengeance; whether the authorities are up to the task of containing and combating it remains to be seen.

Northern Virginia, which has its own regional gang task force, has been helped by a robust infusion of federal funding for anti-gang initiatives, thanks largely to the efforts of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). In the Maryland suburbs, whose Democratic lawmakers lack Mr. Wolf's majority-party muscle in Congress, federal funding has been more modest. In both areas, though, there are concerns that the anti-gang effort has emphasized law enforcement at the expense of keeping youths from joining gangs or luring them away if they do. Those gang-fighting strategies -- prevention and intervention, in the policy vernacular -- are as important as police work. To be successful, there must be a concerted outreach to Hispanic teenagers with after-school social and educational programs that serve as alternatives to gang activity, led by trained and experienced community leaders.

Things can easily get worse before they get better, particularly if gang members switch from knives to even more lethal weapons. Authorities must accelerate and intensify policing and community programs. On the law enforcement front, local police, including in Montgomery, have been slow to recruit, train and deploy young Spanish-speaking officers who can gain the trust and cooperation of the community against gangs as well as penetrate the gang world and put potential witnesses and informants at ease. In homes and schools, parents and teachers have been slow to recognize the signs of gang membership. Community education can overcome that shortcoming. But it is important that federal, state and local initiatives receive the enthusiastic and sustained support of elected and civic leaders -- and students themselves.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company