Prince William County

Taking to the Mall to Loosen Gangs' Grip

Guil Costas, 18, left, a member of the Mapavi Youth Center teen advisory board, talks with co-director Alonso Zamora.
Guil Costas, 18, left, a member of the Mapavi Youth Center teen advisory board, talks with co-director Alonso Zamora. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Mapavi, a local nonprofit organization newly focused on combating Latino gangs in the region, has decided to go where the teenagers are: the mall.

The organization, founded in 1992 with the mission of assisting the terminally ill in Latin American countries, opened the Mapavi Youth Center in May. The center is inside Hi-Mart, a mini-mall on Route 1 in Woodbridge that opened last year and is filled with more than 100 booths with vendors selling wares.

The youth center is a booth enclosed by walls but no ceiling. Here, teens will be able to gather, use a dozen donated computers and even take English classes.

"After working almost 12 years with gang-related families and gang members, I really realized that the malls are where gang members are looking for other gang members" to recruit, said the Rev. Jose E. Hoyos, founder of Mapavi.

The group is talking with store owners about opening a similar youth center at Manassas Mall.

"We want to go to Manassas Mall. We might go to Langley Park after this," said Alonso Zamora, co-director of the center.

Law enforcement officers, elected officials and social services groups are scrambling to find solutions to the problem of gangs, especially Hispanic ones that are gaining strength and spreading through the area's suburban communities.

Four teenagers were stabbed at a Target in Wheaton and two others were attacked at Montgomery County's Springbrook High School this month in violence that police believe involved the gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. Eleven people have been arrested in the attacks.

In April, a 14-year-old boy, believed by police to be associated with the South Side Locos gang, was stabbed and beaten with baseball bats outside Manassas Mall by members of Suerno-13, a rival gang and spinoff of MS-13.

Prince William County police said they arrested 264 gang members last year on various charges, including murder in one case.

"Soon, it won't just be a Hispanic problem. It will be a multiracial problem," Hoyos said.

Mapavi organizers hope that the new computers at the Hi-Mart youth center will be a draw for teenagers.

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