A task force formed by Montgomery and Prince George's counties has held public forums in the past two weeks as it seeks ways to combat gang activity in the Washington area.

Law enforcement officials say gangs have become increasingly prevalent in Maryland, the District and Virginia. That includes Fairfax, where investigators believe an attack with a machete last month that nearly severed the hands of a teenager was gang-related.

"It's a significant problem, and it seems to be growing," said Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), a member of the task force.

At recent town hall meetings in Hyattsville and Gaithersburg, people were invited to voice concerns about gang-related issues in their communities.

Erwin Mack, a task force member who is executive director of the Takoma/Langley Crossroads Development Authority, a nonprofit business association, said he was stunned at one of the meetings when a high school student announced that he would remain a gang member no matter what the police did.

"[He's] . . . saying there's nothing you can do to stop me from making money," Mack said. "We were all appalled that he had the audacity to speak this way."

Prince George's investigators have identified 46 gangs with a total of more than 400 members in the county, said Barbara Hamm, a spokeswoman for Police Chief Melvin C. High.

Investigators, Hamm said, have focused on the Langley Park area, where MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a Latino gang composed primarily of Salvadoran immigrants, has operated.

"They have a large group of gang members there," she said.

The gang activity also includes African American groups that travel primarily along the Southern Avenue border between Prince George's and the District, cutting through communities such as Suitland, Temple Hills and Oxon Hill.

Investigators in Montgomery have identified more than 80 gangs and about 2,000 members, according to State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. "The gang problem in Montgomery County has grown in volume and severity," he said.

Since taking office in 1999, Gansler has assigned a prosecutor in his office to focus solely on gangs. The prosecutor handles from 30 to 50 gang-related cases annually, including several homicides, Gansler said.

"When we say gangs, we're not talking about Bloods and Crips; we're talking about loose organizations of people who get together and commit crimes," he said. "It took a long time for the county government to recognize that we have a gang problem. More recently, the political types have gotten on board with the law enforcement types."

Street gangs are a growing concern for police departments across the country. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton criticized the White House last week for seeking to cut funding to anti-gang programs. He said gangs are "migrating from Chicago and Los Angeles and coming soon to a town near you, I can promise you."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) announced the formation of the joint gang task force in February after investigators had warned for months that gangs were spreading across the area.

The 30-member task force, which includes elected officials, prosecutors, educators and community leaders, plans to submit a report with specific recommendations in September.

As part of their work, task force members have divided into six subcommittees to focus on issues such as prevention, intervention and suppression of gangs.

Mack said the panel has concentrated more on dismantling gangs rather than decreasing their attraction for teenagers.

"We should be talking about stopping kids from going into gangs," he said. "We have to figure out how to help young people who have children, who don't know what to do. What causes them to go into gangs? Where are the parents?"

Montgomery County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), a member of the task force, said he is unsure whether gangs are a new problem or an old one that government officials are now more willing to recognize. "I grew up in Newark, and the existence of gangs is no big surprise to me," he said. "We're not talking about a brand-new problem. This is not something that all of a sudden happened."

But what is new, law enforcement officials say, is the growth of Latino gangs in the area, a trend that coincides with the influx of people from Central America and Mexico.

Over the past year, Ivey said, Prince George's police have developed a detailed dossier on the gangs and their members.

"They've covered a lot of ground, and now [authorities] know who's in those gangs," he said. "The information is making it easier to track them."