When Gus Guthrie looks out over his elementary school art classes, he sees fear.
"I worry about my kids every day," said Guthrie, who learned over the summer that one of his former students at Bailey's Elementary School in the Culmore area of Fairfax County had been charged in a killing that police said may have been an initiation into the Mara Salvatrucha street gang.
"I think when you see people getting hurt and people getting killed, that's a problem. I don't think we've done enough to figure out how to do something about it. Obviously these groups are capable of turning a child into a killer," Guthrie said.
Guthrie, other residents and some police officials fear that a suburban strip along Columbia Pike from Culmore into Arlington's Douglas Park neighborhood is beginning to experience a problem more closely associated with large cities: escalating gang violence.
"We have a gang problem," said Detective Greg Smith, assistant supervisor of the Fairfax County Police Department's 10-member gang investigations unit. "There are a lot of people out there who have never seen it and don't believe it's here."
But the Mara Salvatrucha gang has been linked to two killings in the past four months and is responsible for dozens of vicious attacks involving machetes and baseball bats, police said. Most recently, Mara Salvatrucha members allegedly were involved in a stabbing last week at a gas station on Columbia Pike in Arlington--an attack a witness said resulted from a clash of two large groups.
Police in Los Angeles have called Mara Salvatrucha "the most mindlessly violent gang in the city" and have attributed hundreds of slayings to the group over the past decade.
Now gang investigators believe that the ruthless street gang--also known as MS-13--is increasing its hold on Northern Virginia. Police say the gang's base is in Virginia with only minor outposts in other areas of the region.
MS-13 has been in Northern Virginia for at least five years, but the recent violence in Arlington and Fairfax counties has focused new attention on the problem.
Authorities say 20 to 30 gangs in Northern Virginia have more than 2,000 members. Mara Salvatrucha has more than 600 members in Fairfax alone, and authorities say the number is growing. Police say they are keeping the problem in check, but some warn that the recent violence is a bad omen.
"Certainly 20 years from now, if [the gangs] are left to their own devices, we could be looking at the same problems that L.A.'s got," Smith said. "They're not organized here to the point that they are in L.A., and that's what is saving this area right now."
Authorities and others working on the gang problem attribute the recent violence to a new MS-13 recruiting drive. Younger and younger members are showing how tough they are by hassling, and ultimately assaulting, members of rival gangs and sometimes some bystanders.
In neighborhoods such as Culmore in the Falls Church area of Fairfax and Douglas Park in Arlington, some residents fear encounters with large groups. Some area parks have become scenes of nighttime violence, and gunfire can be heard on previously peaceful streets.
Mike Lane, 48, who lives about two blocks from the site of a gang-related slaying last month in Arlington, said he's fearful of his local 7-Eleven after dark because of gang activity. Graffiti has increased, crowds gather in dark lots, and Lane said it's not worth braving a confrontation to go to the store.
"A prudent person would not go into any situation where there is a gang of 10 or 15 people standing around in a parking lot with no apparent purpose other than to be intimidating," said Lane, a former Arlington County Board member.
Investigators say Mara Salvatrucha is more than just intimidating. "People should most definitely be afraid of what could happen," said Detective Wayne Caffey, of the Los Angeles Police Department, who has worked with gangs for 19 years. "They are a California-based street gang with street gang values and one of the most violent reputations in the United States."
One of the largest and most influential gangs in the region, Mara Salvatrucha--translated roughly as street-tough Salvadoran gang--is composed largely of immigrants from El Salvador. MS-13 members in five or six "sets" have been tracked in Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties but are known primarily in eastern Fairfax and Arlington. Some have MS-13 tattoos.
Caffey said the gang was founded in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, as young men from El Salvador fled the war-torn Central American country. Often immigrating with honed military skills after serving on death squads at home, the gang's founders quickly turned to violence and became known around Los Angeles as one of the most hated and feared gangs.
About six years ago, detectives on the West Coast began noticing a pattern: MS-13 members who were being released from prison were making their way across the country to the Washington area, where there is a large Salvadoran population, Caffey said.
"With that movement came a shuffling of resources--guns and drugs--mostly going from California to Virginia," Caffey said. "They were and have been fueling the base in Virginia, especially because it means money and income."
The concern over gangs in Northern Virginia has prompted local, state and federal officials to travel to Los Angeles twice in the past year to study gang issues and to learn about Mara Salvatrucha and its rivals.
Gang investigators in Northern Virginia say they have succeeded in pushing much of the gang activity underground, hassling members so much that they don't want to be noticed. Police are working with the schools to root out recruitment. In fact, Melvin Campos, 23, a Fairfax County man who has an MS-13 logo tattooed on his forehead, in August became become the first person charged under a new law that prohibits recruiting minors into street gangs.
Although Smith said it is department policy not to speak about specific groups, he noted that Fairfax police have arrested a number of gang members from Los Angeles. Some have been older--in their late twenties and thirties--a fact that he says may signal an attempt to organize the local gang structure.
MS-13 has been known to meet in large groups throughout the region, planning attacks or retaliatory actions. Prince William police arrested 15 members of Mara Salvatrucha on trespass charges Sept. 9 after learning that they might be assembling, said Sgt. Richard Cantarella, of the special investigations unit. Officers nabbed the group at Stonewall Middle School, where they were allegedly setting up a plan to retaliate against informants.
"We've had some isolated incidents here, including assaults and things of that nature," Cantarella said. "There have been some turf battles, what appears to be them trying to gain some territory."
Some counselors who reach out to gang members are increasingly frustrated that young teenagers join the gangs, which police say recruit in some middle schools.
"I don't think a lot of the young kids will see the negative aspects of it or the violence, but once you're in it, you get sucked in and sucked in, further and further," said Iris Garay, director of the local chapter of Barrios Unidos, a nationwide anti-gang organization.
Outreach programs, though intense, seem to be scarce.
Members of Garay's organization try to reason with teenagers before the gang members do. They are on the streets of Culmore gathering information and intervening when they can. A group of Hispanic business leaders decided to put up $20,000 for a soccer mentoring program staffed by the county recreation department to offer alternatives and positive role models. Fairfax County police work closely with school officials so they always know when a young boy suddenly shows up in class with new graffiti on his backpack.
The gangs' youngest members are allegedly involved in the most violent acts. Three boys, ages 12, 13 and 14--all members of Mara Salvatrucha--were charged in the July stabbing death of a stranger in the Culmore Shopping Center.
Smith said there have been "dozens and dozens" of nonfatal stabbings that haven't received as much attention.
Second Lt. Roger Kelley, a supervisor of the Fairfax gang unit, said the violence can be loosely equated to the young members "earning their merit badges" and in most cases earning respect among their peers.
Two weeks ago, Arlington police arrested a member of MS-13 in connection with an Oct. 24 slaying on Columbia Pike. Three others--all affiliated with MS-13--had previously been charged with murder in the shooting death of the 20-year-old man, who police said was a member of a rival gang called Little Locos, or LL.
Arlington Deputy Police Chief James Younger said the four attackers shot their victim at close range, apparently after their gangs argued.
But Younger said that the gang slaying was an isolated incident and does not mean there's a new trend. "Based on the intelligence we have, there are no indications of an increase in this type of violence in the future," Younger said. "For Arlington in particular, we don't see it as being a real concern as far as escalating to the next level. People should not be afraid."
Such comments from police have outraged some in the community. Guthrie, who fears that the violence is being dismissed because it is "gang on gang," said police need to understand that with every death, a person--not "just" a gang member--is ripped from a family.
"It made me angry, because it leaves the face off of these people; it dehumanizes it," Guthrie said. "The gangs are made up of people, and those people have potential."