As several players socialized after a soccer game behind Gaithersburg Middle School last month, they were approached by a group of young men wearing bandanas over their faces and wielding knives and baseball bats. They announced they were part of the MS-13 gang.
The soccer players ran from the gang, and the suspects fled when they heard police sirens approaching -- but not before stabbing a 30-year-old man from Gaithersburg who had to be hospitalized briefly.
Soon after the incident, Officer Luis Hurtado, the Hispanic liaison in the Montgomery County Police Department's community outreach section, went to the local Spanish-language media to discuss the incident and ask anyone with information to call a police hotline.
An anonymous tipster came forward. He called police after seeing the crime reported on Spanish-language station Univision and gave investigators some information, Montgomery police spokesman Derek Baliles said.
Now, police are asking the same tipster to contact them again about the June 26 incident, one of numerous efforts by Montgomery investigators to combat gangs by reaching out to the Latino community.
Their main goals: preventing youths from joining local gangs and cracking down on gang activity. But authorities say they also are trying to overcome language and cultural barriers to appeal to Hispanic adults, many of whom are foreign-born and reluctant to interact with law enforcement.
As the Hispanic community continues attracting immigrants, efforts by police to gain its trust and cooperation against gangs must be frequently renewed, Hurtado said.
"The community changes so quickly that you have to keep reinforcing the same issues over and over and over again," he said.
Montgomery Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said dozens of Spanish-speaking police officers across the county serve similar functions, but there's still a need to boost their presence. He said he believes the county is making progress in its outreach efforts, citing the role of his advisory panel on Hispanic community issues, which meets with him monthly to relay Latino residents' concerns.
Montgomery officials say county residents may be less aware of gangs than are residents in Northern Virginia, but gangs are nevertheless a growing problem in suburban Maryland.
"The Potomac River may separate Fairfax and the state of Virginia and Montgomery County and the state of Maryland, but the gangbangers go back and forth across that border," said Jeffrey Wennar, who has prosecuted gang members for four years in the Montgomery state's attorney's office.
Estimates on the number of gangs active in Montgomery range from fewer than two dozen to close to 200. Although authorities are conscious of gangs with members from various ethnicities, Montgomery's largest problem is with Latino gangs such as MS-13 and its rivals, Wennar said.
"We would be foolish to concentrate our efforts in other areas," Manger said.
Reports of gang-related crimes and their severity have slowly crept up, Wennar said, citing recent fights and other incidents in Shady Grove and Silver Spring.
The challenge for authorities reaching out to Hispanic adults is to overcome some immigrants' fear of approaching police because of bad experiences in their native countries or consequences related to their immigration status, said Diego Uriburu, deputy executive director of Identity, an organization that helps Latino youths.
Officials said they try to assure local victims and people with information about gangs that immigration status should not be an obstacle to justice.
"We're not going to ask about immigration status," Baliles said. "Who they are is not important; what they know seems to be very important to us."
Overcoming that distrust is a key to tapping into the Hispanic community's knowledge of gang activity and other crimes, said Joe Heiney-Gonzalez, Latino/Hispanic liaison to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
For hundreds of local Latinos, Hurtado is the face of the county police department. He goes to churches and addresses services. He speaks to thousands of public school students, and he attends parent-teacher sessions.
When Latinos find a county or police officer with whom they can relate or communicate comfortably -- often after the officer speaks or appears on local Spanish language media outlets -- they flood that person with complaints, pleas for help and advice on how to solve gang issues at home, Hurtado said, detailing his own experiences.
"It gets overwhelming, and people come to me because, I tell you, they trust me," he said. "Some of the stories, I wish I had a magic wand to help people."