Anti-Gang Strategies Lack Unity

By Cameron W. Barr and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Six months after he served more than a year in jail for disposing of a body in a gang-related killing in Montgomery County, Nelson Bernal was back on the streets, lying in wait outside a county high school -- preparing, police say, to attack members of a rival Latino gang.

Police say he stabbed David Gamero in the head, chest and abdomen and Juan Quito Jr. in the lower back in the parking lot of Springbrook High School on Aug. 5. According to a county prosecutor, the attackers shouted, "Mara Salvatrucha!"

Bernal, 24, is back in jail, along with seven other suspects in the high school stabbing, and immigration authorities said they plan to deport him. They didn't take that step in 2004, when local officials alerted them that he was a convicted felon and in this country illegally.

Bernal, an El Salvador native, lived and committed crimes in Maryland and Virginia. He "personifies the need for information sharing that goes beyond the boundaries of counties, states and the federal government," said Montgomery police Sgt. Robert Carter.

Gang investigators in the Washington region routinely rely on word-of-mouth assistance from counterparts in other jurisdictions. But as Mara Salvatrucha and other Latino gangs expand their presence in the area, some officials say they need more formal and reliable means of sharing information about an enemy that crosses local, state and international borders.

If such mechanisms had been in place early this decade, Carter said, "maybe we could have gotten Bernal out of here earlier."

Such complaints echo the hindsight of the intelligence community in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI has created a National Gang Intelligence Center and is developing a gang strategy, targeted first at Mara Salvatrucha. These efforts, however, have yet to produce specific tools, such as national or regional databases devoted to gangs, that local law enforcers could use easily.

"There is a lot more obvious crossover between jurisdictions, especially with MS-13," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, the U.S. attorney for the District, using a shorthand term for the gang. "They haven't hit us yet with the level of violence we've seen in Northern Virginia, but we need to be prepared to head that off."

His counterpart in Northern Virginia, Paul J. McNulty, said his office has prosecuted several gang cases, and the newly sworn U.S. attorney in Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, said he is developing a "specific strategy" to counter gang violence.

Not everyone agrees that sharing information is the solution.

"It's something that we really, really have to explore deeply, even before we do it," said Lt. Michael Pavlik, who heads the D.C. police intelligence unit. "Different jurisdictions use different criteria for identifying gang members. In the law circles throughout the country, everybody has a different definition of a gang member."

Perceptions of the local threat vary, in large part because the Latino gangs are so loosely knit. In Montgomery, for instance, police say there are about 20 gangs with 500 members; the state's attorney says there are 80 gangs with 2,000 to 3,000 members. Fairfax police say 2,500 gang members are in their county, and D.C. police estimate a gang membership of 800 to 1,000.

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