Branded In a World Of Gang Warfare

By Sudarsan Raghavan, Karin Brulliard and Fulvio Cativo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 22, 2005

On crowded city buses in her native El Salvador, Flor Alas was well-versed in a key rule of survival: Don't look a gang member in the eyes.

Two years ago, she and her sister moved to Gaithersburg to live with an uncle. She joined the Army ROTC and tried out for Magruder High School's pom squad. Her English became standard suburban teenspeak.

But Alas soon discovered that her old world wasn't completely behind her. Now, in the eyes of her American peers, she carries the taint of the gang violence she thought she'd escaped.

She remembers a dance where a white girl asked if she was "full Salvadoran, like born there?" Alas, 18, said yes. The girl's face wrinkled as if she had tasted something bad. She hated Salvadorans, she said, the way they dressed, talked and just are.

"They assume we're all criminals," said Alas, now a senior at Magruder. "It's like, every single person that I meet, they're like, 'Don't tell me you're from El Salvador.' "

As Latino gangs expand their influence in Maryland and Virginia, the consequences have rippled through the region's Latino communities. Many young people feel anger, humiliation and even self-loathing at the hands of those who assume that they are criminals. Parents struggle with p uro miedo -- pure fear -- that their children will join or be harmed because they resist recruitment.

The pressures cross economic, class and generational lines. Latino laborers, whose wages support families here and in Central America, fear falling prey to gang crime. Second-generation Latinos of the middle class, seeking assimilation, speak of the "looks" when they stroll the malls. Some try to mask their heritage while others avoiding wearing baggy jeans and certain gang-favored colors, such as white.

"Kids have been stereotyped in schools. Police officers have stopped them because of how they were dressed or how they look -- 'Stopped while being brown,' as some Latino kids say," said Luis Cardona, a former gang member who teaches in the Criminal Justice Department of the University of the District of Columbia.

"We have to make sure we don't start preying on the kids who are doing what they are supposed to do."

Some of the Salvadoran immigrants who fled civil war and death squads for Los Angeles in the early 1980s founded Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, originally as a defense against Mexican gangs. Since then, it has spread to more than 30 states and several Central American countries, luring Latinos of other nationalities as well.

MS-13 surfaced in Northern Virginia in the early 1990s, drawn in part by the Washington region's burgeoning Salvadoran population, now the nation's second-largest. The gang is newer to Maryland, taking root in such Latino-rich suburbs as Langley Park and Gaithersburg.

Although gangs have been present for years, the violence that erupted this summer is a shock for many residents. On Aug. 5, six Montgomery County youths were stabbed in gang-related attacks: two at Springbrook High School and four others at a Target in Wheaton.

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