Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who leaves tomorrow for a trade mission to El Salvador, said he will urge leaders of the Central American nation to help combat gang violence involving Salvadoran youth here.
Duncan said he will ask President Elias Antonio Saca about sharing information among law enforcement agencies here and abroad and will seek his cooperation in the possible extradition of suspected gang members.
"It's a situation where we both have the same goal in mind, that we don't want these gangs preying on people and committing crimes," Duncan said yesterday. "I expect to see a real interest in our issue and the challenges we have here in the Washington region, and I expect to see a real cooperation."
The county's problem with Latino gangs came into sharp focus Friday when six teenagers were injured in knife fights that broke out at a Colesville area high school and at a Wheaton shopping mall.
In his three-day visit to El Salvador, aimed primarily at forging business ties between the nation and the county where many of its emigrants have settled, Duncan (D) also will meet with members of the country's political and economic elite, including representatives from the legislative assembly and chamber of commerce. And he will sit down with the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, H. Douglas Barclay, before heading east to the part of the country that many of Montgomery's newest residents call home.
Latino leaders said they were pleased that Duncan plans to include the gang problem in his discussions. The Salvadoran government has taken a tough stance against youth violence but should do more to address root causes such as poverty, the leaders said. Montgomery's approach, they said, has also been flawed.
"I really do think that this is another area in which we are linked between what is happening in El Salvador and what is happening in the United States," said state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, (D-Montgomery), who is accompanying Duncan. "It just cannot be ignored as a topic, and I think we can look at what can be a collaborative approach on this issue."
Duncan said the county has not ignored the problem, pointing to a task force and his efforts to hire more police officers to deal with gangs.
Gutierrez said she hopes Duncan gets a glimpse of the poverty that has afflicted the nation of about 6.5 million people so he can understand why so many of them end up in Maryland.
"I think that by his being there and looking at it with his own eyes, if he's traveling outside the capital, he'll see that poverty is all over," she said.
Duncan, who plans to run for governor, will be the first county executive from the United States to make an official visit to El Salvador. "I think it's a great first step for a high-ranking official to visit Latin America," said Prince George's County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), also part of the delegation. "It's a great beginning to establish the relationship."
Duncan said he is taking the trip at the invitation of El Salvador's ambassador in Washington, Rene Antonio Leon, whom he met with last year to discuss issues related to the county's Salvadoran population. But he said he is making the journey also because he wants to recognize the contributions Salvadorans have made to Montgomery. He sees the trip as a trade mission, one in which he can explore ways for Salvadoran companies to invest in the county.
"Diversity in our county is a great asset," he said on a recent Saturday afternoon as he mingled with guests at a barbecue for his Latino supporters in Silver Spring. "The Latino community has a very strong sense of family, a very strong work ethic. There's a great willingness to become part of American society."
To support the community, Duncan has recognized identity cards issued by Mexico and Guatemala, opened a welcome center for immigrants that offers lessons in English and citizenship, and organized his Office of Community Outreach by regions of the world.
This is not the first time Duncan has traveled abroad in more than a decade as a county executive. But Salvadorans make up a big chunk of Montgomery's immigrant community, making them a powerful constituency to woo as he seeks the Democratic nomination to run against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in 2006.
According to the 2000 Census, 45 percent of Maryland's foreign-born residents live in Montgomery. The county's immigrant and minority populations make up about 40 percent of its 930,000 residents. And the census recorded more than 100,000 Salvadorans in the Washington region -- though the Salvadoran Embassy says the number is much higher.
For the Salvadoran government, maintaining ties to their citizens in the United States is critical: Salvadorans send back more than $2 billion a year.
Duncan's delegation will include business leaders such as Carlos Menjivar, a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County; advocates such as Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland; and entrepreneurs such as Jose Barahona, the owner of the Washington area franchise licenses of the Guatemalan restaurant chain Pollo Campero. Barahona is hoping to build a tourist resort in Bahia de Jiquilisco, a community Duncan plans to visit.
The Montgomery government will pay for Duncan and three of his aides at a cost of about $8,000. Others on the delegation will pay their own way.
Staff writer Krissah Williams contributed to this report.