Mapavi, a local nonprofit organization newly focused on combating Latino gangs in the region, has decided to go where the teenagers are: the mall.
The organization, founded in 1992 with the mission of assisting the terminally ill in Latin American countries, opened the Mapavi Youth Center in May. The center is inside Hi-Mart, a mini-mall on Route 1 in Woodbridge that opened last year and is filled with more than 100 booths with vendors selling wares.
The youth center is a booth enclosed by walls but no ceiling. Here, teens will be able to gather, use a dozen donated computers and even take English classes.
"After working almost 12 years with gang-related families and gang members, I really realized that the malls are where gang members are looking for other gang members" to recruit, said the Rev. Jose E. Hoyos, founder of Mapavi.
The group is talking with store owners about opening a similar youth center at Manassas Mall.
"We want to go to Manassas Mall. We might go to Langley Park after this," said Alonso Zamora, co-director of the center.
Law enforcement officers, elected officials and social services groups are scrambling to find solutions to the problem of gangs, especially Hispanic ones that are gaining strength and spreading through the area's suburban communities.
Four teenagers were stabbed at a Target in Wheaton and two others were attacked at Montgomery County's Springbrook High School this month in violence that police believe involved the gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. Eleven people have been arrested in the attacks.
In April, a 14-year-old boy, believed by police to be associated with the South Side Locos gang, was stabbed and beaten with baseball bats outside Manassas Mall by members of Suerno-13, a rival gang and spinoff of MS-13.
Prince William County police said they arrested 264 gang members last year on various charges, including murder in one case.
"Soon, it won't just be a Hispanic problem. It will be a multiracial problem," Hoyos said.
Mapavi organizers hope that the new computers at the Hi-Mart youth center will be a draw for teenagers.
"The access to the Internet gets them here," said Ricardo O. Villanueva, a board member. "It's like candy."
Then the group will try to keep the teenagers off the streets, he said. "Many of the kids join these gangs because they need to be part of a family. Father Hoyos says we need to help them change families."
The youth center can, at least, show young people more positive sides of the Hispanic community, said Alex Harb, a board member.
The youth center board is made up of successful Latino businesspeople, many of whom are immigrants who came to the United States with few possessions. "We are going to become role models for these kids," Harb said. "Modesty aside, we are very proud of who we are and what we can bring to the table. Not everybody wants to be in a gang. Not everybody wants to be in the street. If you want, you will get out of it," he said.
The center, which cost $50,000 to become operational, will host visits by military, police and fire recruiters to show that jobs, opportunities and alternatives to a gang lifestyle exist, Harb said. "It's not only about teaching them ESL or computers. It's about changing their attitude."
Joon Park, executive director of Hi-Mart, offered the space and the computers free to Mapavi and serves as a co-director of the center. At Manassas Mall, Mapavi is working to get a location near the existing Job Hut center, which helps teenagers and young adults find employment, Zamora said.
At the opening at Hi-Mart in May, ambassadors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru were present, along with Prince William Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) and Col. Charlie T. Deane, the police chief.
Ana Margarita Chavez, consul for El Salvador and former executive director of the Salvadoran Antidrug Commission, said El Salvador is interested in such programs as Mapavi because gang culture is a dangerous connection between communities in the United States and the Central American country.
"Police from El Salvador have come here to exchange ideas," she said. "We are going to start working to stop violence in youth."
Guil Costas, 18, a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, has joined the teen advisory board.
He said he hopes the teenagers will become invested in the center. "A lot of people don't have anywhere to go," Costas said. "Here, they are going to feel special."