Broad Gang Presence Requires Parents' Vigilance, Officials Say
Friday, June 2, 2006
Criminal gangs are operating across Maryland at a level many in the state do not recognize or are unwilling to admit, participants in what was billed as the first Maryland gang summit warned yesterday.
At the Columbia summit, speakers -- who included police detectives, state and federal prosecutors, politicians and representatives of community groups -- described an insidious problem and said law enforcement is often not the solution. The battle to keep young people out of gangs is being fought inside schools and homes, they said, with teachers, parents and social workers on the front line.
"We've lost the battle if we wait until the kids have already joined the gangs," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), who called for more after-school and mentoring programs for youths.
Maryland, with its broad socioeconomic and ethnic mix, has become a "microcosm of gang activity," according to Assistant U.S. Attorney James Trusty. "We really have every type of gang activity," added Trusty, gang coordinator for the U.S. attorney's office for Maryland. "Our schools and businesses are increasingly in the line of fire."
The problem drew broad attention in Montgomery County last summer when, on a single day in August, gang fights led to the stabbing of two summer school students at a Silver Spring high school and to a melee at a Wheaton shopping center that left four teenagers wounded. Later that month, 19 Mara Salvatrucha members were indicted on federal racketeering charges.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), calling for an end to "turf battles" among law enforcement agencies, announced the formation of a coordinating committee that will create a statewide database on gangs.
Those who specialize in gangs acknowledged that they are struggling to keep up with the proliferation of gang crime, and they said many parents are not willing to recognize that their children are involved.
At one panel discussion, Sgt. George Norris, supervisor of the gang unit for Prince George's County police, warned colleagues not to wait to address the problem. "We probably should have started looking at gangs 10 years ago, because right now we are severely behind the eight ball," he said.
Trusty said, "Our best efforts are not going to eradicate gangs in Maryland."
Gaithersburg Detective Patrick Word, president of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network, put the number of gang members in Maryland at 10,000, but he and other speakers said there inevitably are many others of whom police are unaware.
More gangs in the area are identifying themselves as Bloods or Crips, which are violent Los Angeles-based gangs, law enforcement officials said.
Word described the Bloods as "the biggest threat" in the state. Other major gangs in Maryland include the Black Guerrilla Family; MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a Latino gang; and Tiny Rascal Gangsters, a Southeast Asian gang. Among motorcycle gangs, Hells Angels has established itself in Southern Maryland, which was previously considered the territory of the Pagan motorcycle gang. Police also said that the Vatos Locos, South Side Locos and Street Thug Criminals are serious gang threats.
"It's no longer like West Side Story, where people run around singing . . . 'Maria,' " said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), one of the organizers of the summit.
Mikulski recently obtained $2 million in federal funds for a statewide anti-gang initiative, and Ehrlich said the state had $300,000 in grants to combat gangs.
Capt. Lennard Johnson of the Maryland Division of Corrections said 1,900 confirmed gang members are in the prison system. "For every one we've validated, there are probably two or three we don't know about," he said.