Some gang members proudly boast their allegiance to their factions through the color of their clothes, doodles on their book bags and bold tattoos on their faces or hands. Others are more subtle, wearing gang symbols on concealed belt buckles and in codelike emblems on T-shirts.
But gang members of all kinds are scattered in all corners of Loudoun County, sheriff's officials said at a community forum Wednesday.
"There's not an area in Loudoun County that I can tell you there's not a gang member living there," said Sgt. Mark Poland, head of the Sheriff's Office gang unit.
In the fourth such forum on local gang activity, members of the gang unit and the county's new Gang Response Intervention Team told residents that Loudoun is still a safe place to live even though gangs have staked a claim throughout the county. But they urged residents to help law enforcement officers combat gangs by learning to recognize and report signs of gang activity and by spreading the word to friends and neighbors.
Noting the small turnout at the forum and others before it, officials said community awareness about gangs remains a concern. About 50 residents attended Wednesday's event at Dominion High School, even though it was publicized in radio ads and through fliers distributed at 21 schools and 40 churches.
"A lot of people still want to pretend there's not a problem here," Poland said.
Gangs have been a mounting problem in the Washington area for years, and Loudoun has not been exempt, Poland said. Recent high-profile incidents of gang violence in Alexandria, where a teenager was attacked by gang members with a machete in May, and in Prince William County, where a 22-year-old man was killed in what police said was a gang-related shooting in August, have highlighted the issue.
MS-13, a Salvadoran immigrant gang with an estimated 3,000 members in Northern Virginia, remains the most powerful in Loudoun, sheriff's investigator Scott Mastandrea said. But "homegrown" gangs also are committing crimes and recruiting in the area, he said.
Many people at the meeting, most of whom were parents, expressed concern that authorities might not be doing enough to prevent gang growth. Some suggested a countywide curfew or a Boys & Girls Club. Cascades resident Barbara Johnson, a 43-year-old mother of two, questioned whether the gang unit was sufficiently staffed.
Mastandrea said the Sheriff's Office has been rapidly forced to come to terms with the gang problem, just as residents must. Since 1999, the Sheriff's Office gang unit has expanded from one part-time investigator to four who track gangs full time.
"This gang issue came on real quick . . . and we're still playing catch-up," Mastandrea said.
Because gangs in the region roam across county lines, law enforcement agencies throughout Northern Virginia are working together to keep them at bay, Poland said. The agencies share information about gang members and go out searching for gangs together.
Officials at the meeting showed examples of graffiti, symbols, clothing and hand signs that gang members use to identify themselves. They stressed that residents should inform authorities if they see such gang indicators.
Parents can help keep their children from joining gangs by monitoring their activities, asking a lot of questions and rummaging through their bedrooms, said Dave Carver, coordinator of the Gang Response Intervention Team.
"Be the parent you swore you would never be when you were a kid," Carver said.
Johnson, a yoga instructor, said she planned to share what she had learned at the forum with guidance counselors at her children's schools, at parent meetings and with her children.
"You can empower them with knowledge," she said. "Crimes don't happen in the light; they happen when it's dark. Let's turn on the lights."