To Rodrigo Avila, gang violence is nothing new. As El Salvador's vice minister of public safety, Avila has battled las maras for years.
To Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, street gangs were a safe distance away, that is until six teenage boys were seriously wounded in what police are calling gang-related stabbings in the Wheaton and Colesville areas this month.
On Friday night, a week after the stabbings, Avila and Duncan sat down in the capital of this Central American nation to discuss the public safety threat they share.
"I compare this to the military fighting terrorists who are suicide bombers," Avila told Duncan during an informal 90-minute discussion, most of it in English. "It's not like a conventional war."
Duncan's four-day trip to El Salvador, scheduled before the stabbings occurred, was billed as a trade mission, one in which he could strengthen business ties with a country that is the birthplace of about 65,000 of Montgomery's immigrants, according to county estimates.
But conversations with political and business leaders have inevitably turned to gangs, as Duncan (D), a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2006, seeks to show he has a handle on an issue that worries many of his constituents back home.
Of all the officials he has met with, including President Elias Antonio Saca, Duncan received the most tangible advice for battling gangs from Avila, who said his agency is a combination of the Homeland Security and Justice departments in the United States.
Among other suggestions, Avila told Duncan to set up a gang task force within his police department, enlist families to keep their teenagers away from gangs, and keep gang members away from each other as they go through rehabilitation programs. He also advised Duncan to make sure fellow gang members end up in different jails so that their ties would be broken, something the Salvadoran government didn't do for lack of space and money, he said.
"Clearly, we're going to have to look at all those things," Duncan said after the meeting. "It was encouraging in that we're in many ways in the beginning phase of this, so there are things that we can do."
Violent street gangs have overwhelmed El Salvador and other Central American nations in recent years. As tens of thousands of people fled the region's civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s, they formed gangs in Los Angeles. In the past decade, the U.S. government has begun deporting criminals back to their homelands.
These returning gang members have reconnected in such countries as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Avila said. El Salvador's government has taken a tough stance against gangs. Under Saca, it started the Super Mano Dura, or Super Hard Hand, which gave police broad arrest powers -- an initiative that has been criticized by human rights groups.
Saca created programs to prevent youth from joining gangs and to rehabilitate those who do. The country's education department has also developed a program that gives students in and around San Salvador job training and instruction in conflict resolution, said Yesica Rodas, an education official who spoke with Duncan and his delegation Friday after they toured the construction site for a new technology school in the eastern city of La Union.
Duncan also raised the gang issue Thursday during meetings with Saca, legislative leaders and the vice minister of external relations, as well as during a private meeting with the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, H. Douglas Barclay.
Saca touted his prevention and rehabilitation programs but said it is necessary to punish those who commit serious crimes. "I'm not talking about Boy Scouts," he said. "I mean criminals who kill, rape -- the ones who are in gangs and kill and rape."
The issue has become political in El Salvador, a country still polarized after its 12-year civil war. Members of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, have generally opposed Saca's Super Mano Dura. Saca is a member of the right-wing Arena party.
"We have to make a change in El Salvador," said Blanca Flor Bonilla, a FMLN legislator. "That change isn't just to put these people in jail. That is not the solution."
Montgomery does not yet have a gang crisis, Avila told Duncan.
"I think you need to understand that you have a very manageable problem," Avila said. "Your problem is so different from ours, and your problem is still so different from the one in L.A."
Still, Avila told Duncan to act quickly to keep the gangs from becoming more powerful. "The key thing is to halt their development as a criminal organization," he said. "It's not the same as seeing them as a violent juvenile group as it is to see them as a high-level criminal organization."