Md. Secures Federal Funds to Fight Gangs

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Maryland lawmakers announced $750,000 in federal funding yesterday to help combat what they called a growing gang problem in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The money will be used to finance gang prevention programs run by the Latin American Youth Center, which works with at-risk youths and former gang members in both counties. Among the services the organization will provide are job training, general equivalency diploma instruction, counseling, internship preparation and computer classes.

"What we're looking for is making sure young people have an alternative to gangs, make sure they have a home, make sure they have a sense of belonging," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said at an afternoon news conference at the center's Silver Spring site. U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was also present.

Earlier in the day, Mikulski joined U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein in Baltimore to announce that his office would receive $2 million in federal funding for the creation of a statewide anti-gang initiative. That money, as well as the funds earmarked for Montgomery and Prince George's, was approved as a part of a larger spending bill passed by Congress in November.

Federal lawmakers have boosted funding to gang-prevention programs in the past year as gangs such as the Bloods, the Crips and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have expanded their presence in suburban communities nationally. Last year, Congress also approved nearly $5 million in additional federal funds for regional gang-prevention initiatives in Maryland and Virginia, part of which went to Montgomery and Prince George's.

"This is a vital public safety effort," U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said at the Baltimore event. "We cannot allow gangs to control our communities. We cannot allow gangs to control our lives."

A gang-related knife fight at a Montgomery high school in the summer prompted officials there to step up efforts to deter young people from joining such groups and highlight the spread of the gang problem. On a trade mission to El Salvador in August, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who is running for governor, sought advice from that country's president and law enforcement officials about the gangs, which have overwhelmed El Salvador and other Central American nations.

As of last year, Montgomery had at least 20 gangs and 600 gang members, Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said.

At yesterday's news conference, Duncan said aggressive prosecution is not the only way to fight gangs. "We've got to do some of everything: prevention, suppression and intervention," he said. "The gang becomes a family for gang members. We need to provide an alternative."

Officials at the Latin American Youth Center, which has offices in Silver Spring and Langley Park, said they would do just that, using the grant to run anti-gang workshops within Prince George's schools, as well as counseling and training programs in both jurisdictions.

"We're just trying to provide them with every opportunity they can to be successful," said Gabriel Albornoz, deputy director of the 32-year-old organization.

As for the U.S. attorney's office, Rosenstein said that the $2 million has not yet been earmarked but that some of it would go toward hiring translators to help law enforcement officials communicate with gang members who don't speak English and toward beefing up the witness protection program. The rest, he said, would be used for prevention and education programs.

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