Virginia's top officials gathered in Fairfax County yesterday to announce that the state will receive $3 million from Congress to coordinate its many anti-gang task forces.
To underscore their new collaboration, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) together announced the funding in a conference room at the Fairfax County Government Center. Over the past two years, the three of them had formed separate task forces -- with some overlapping agendas -- in the wake of several high-profile gang crimes.
"What we are seeing here is an unprecedented level of gang activity in Northern Virginia which has spread across the state," Warner said to an audience of federal prosecutors, police chiefs, social workers and elected officials. "So I think it requires an unprecedented level of cooperation."
Wolf secured the money as chairman of the congressional committee that oversees funding for Department of Justice programs. Congress is expected to approve the spending next month.
In addition to that money, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, created by Wolf in 2002, will receive $2 million. Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers, who leads that group, also announced that the task force has a hotline -- 1-866-NO-GANGS -- for residents to report gang intelligence. Meanwhile, $500,000 will go to the Northwest Virginia Drug Task Force, which is fighting gangs in the Shenandoah Valley.
Wolf said he secured the money in response to a new FBI report on the alarming rise of a gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in Northern Virginia. The study found that as many as 2,000 people belong to the group, with 22 branches identified in the area. Most of the members are teenagers, many in their early teens.
Kilgore added that while gangs have made headlines "with acts of horrific violence" in Herndon and Alexandria, they have also spread to rural areas in central and eastern Virginia.
"Gangs are not a single ethnic group problem or a single regional problem," he said. "Gangs are a problem all over Virginia."
Wolf has said he warned state officials as early as 2002 about the growing number of gangs in Virginia but that it was difficult to get officials in Richmond to pay attention.
Then, on May 10, members of MS-13 carrying machetes attacked a 16-year-old boy who was a member of a gang called South Side Locos, nearly severing his hands. Three MS-13 members have pleaded guilty in that attack near Alexandria.
Six days later, Jose Sandoval, 17, believed to be a member of a gang called 18th Street, was gunned down in Herndon by an assailant who was riding a bike and had an MS tattoo on his forehead. A 16-year-old girl was shot in the back in the attack and survived.
In the ensuing weeks, several anti-gang task forces formed at the local and state levels.
Warner said a steering committee led by Public Safety Secretary John W. Marshall will decide how to spend the federal funds and coordinate the efforts of those groups.
Gerald E. Connolly (D) chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, said he hopes other agencies will model their programs on what the county is doing: creating a "one-stop shop" for people calling to report a gang crime, to find out about anti-gang programs or to get a child out of a gang.
"We don't want to reinvent the model," he said. "We'll take a look at whatever works . . . but the bulk of the burden will rest on the shoulders of local government."