In Md. Suburbs, Police Find Shifting Gang Allegiances

By Ernesto Londoño and Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Bloods and the Crips street gangs, notorious for ruthless violence since they emerged four decades ago in Los Angeles, have become increasingly influential in some of Washington's Maryland suburbs as the gangs recruit in jails and prisons and as small neighborhood crews adopt their names and creeds, authorities say.

A series of attacks last month highlighted the changing role of the gangs in upper Montgomery County. Law enforcement officials attribute the violence, including a fatal stabbing at a bus station in Gaithersburg and shootings at a crowded grocery store in Rockville and outside the Shady Grove Metro station, to feuding between groups that identify themselves as Bloods and Crips.

"We've got to get in front of this," Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said. "We could have easily had three homicides in the span of a week."

In Montgomery, according to the latest gang assessment by county police detectives, the number of members of predominantly African American gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips recently surpassed the membership of Latino gangs, long the primary target of anti-gang initiatives. Police said the assessment, which said 36 separate gangs were active, is based on self-identifications by suspects, tattoos and clothing, reports from informants and other investigative methods.

Until recently, Latino gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, accounted for more gang members than any other ethnic or racial group, according to past assessments.

Violence associated with those gangs has abated significantly, a drop that law enforcement officials attribute to aggressive prosecutions, including a federal racketeering indictment targeting MS-13 leaders, and intervention initiatives aimed at at-risk Hispanic youth.

Officials in Montgomery and Prince George's counties launched a joint task force in 2004, publicly acknowledging that the counties had a gang problem. To a large degree, the effort targeted MS-13, the Latino gang responsible for violent attacks -- some involving machetes -- in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs.

For Montgomery, the "seminal moment," according to State's Attorney John McCarthy, came in August 2005, when members of MS-13 committed two stabbings in broad daylight: one outside Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, and one outside a Target in Wheaton.

The attacks spawned an array of county anti-gang initiatives. Grants for intervention and outreach programs were given to CASA of Maryland and Identity Inc., two groups that serve Hispanic immigrants. County and federal officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Crossroads Youth Opportunity Center, a training, mentoring and recreational facility in Takoma Park, built in a densely Hispanic area.

In October 2005, Montgomery hired Luis Cardona, a Spanish-speaker and self-described reformed gang member, as its first youth violence prevention coordinator. In recent months, the county has hired three outreach workers who report to Cardona and are tasked with steering teenagers away from gangs. Two are Hispanic, and one is African American.

Those efforts have been effective against MS-13, law enforcement officials said, but as it and other Latino gangs have assumed a lower profile, the Bloods and the Crips -- the membership of which is more diverse than it once was -- have emerged as a new concern.

"I think that they were putting all the eggs in one basket," Gaithersburg Detective Patrick Word, president of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network, said of the county's response to a gang problem that was viewed as primarily Hispanic. "They were only paying attention to the Latino gang problem."

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