Now there's a cop in every high school in Montgomery County, 120 police officers assigned to the District's 17 high schools and mandatory lessons about the evils of gangs for every Fairfax middle-schooler.

This week, Congress is pumping millions more into the local fight against gangs, and police and prosecutors are using the extra cash to attack Latino gangs as if they were organized conspiracies such as the Mafia.

All of which is fine if you're running for office or making a movie. But let's be real -- this isn't likely to turn any kid away from joining MS-13, Vatos Locos or any other local groups.

When machetes fly and teenagers rampage at a high school or a suburban mall, we are guaranteed a slew of initiatives, each with some merit.

But this is not Los Angeles. We have no Bloods and Crips here. There is next to no coordination among Maryland, Virginia and D.C. gangs.

Our situation is scary because the rise of the gangs seems so relatively quick. But the vast majority of the kids in Washington area gangs don't fit the movie cliche of gangbangers, and there lies an opportunity.

My own assumptions about the teenagers in local gangs started cracking apart when I served on a jury in D.C. Superior Court this year. For three weeks, we heard from gang members, hangers-on and people who live in gang-ridden neighborhoods. The guy we convicted, Dimas Villatoro, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for planning and taking part in the shooting of two members of a rival gang in an alley behind the Popeyes on Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan.

These guys were dangerous. They acted out their adolescent fantasies of violence and revenge with total contempt for those around them. They scared adults; one witness, the father of a gang member, could not bring himself to speak until he shifted his chair so he wouldn't catch even a glimpse of Villatoro's piercing stare. Another witness, a high school student who hung out with the gang boys, checked for Villatoro's nod of permission before answering each question.

The trial was a window on a world of teens who live a virtually adult-free existence. These kids spend endless hours at midday skip parties, drinking and getting high, or at the neighborhood park playing soccer. Neither parents nor school authorities seem to have any idea where these teens are. They're on their own, making their own lives.

"This is a different situation from L.A., where they live the gang life every day," says Sgt. Juan Aguilar, who heads the D.C. police Gang Intervention Partnership unit. "What we're dealing with here is kids who hold jobs, go to church, have families."

Quite a few gang members work, and not in minimum-wage cleaning jobs, but as managers of restaurants and retail shops.

Yet not a single teen we heard in court seemed involved in school activities that might compete with the lure of a gang -- arts, sports, service. School was irrelevant. The gang was their extracurricular activity.

Gang members here are far less likely than out West to be assigned to prove their manhood by committing violent acts. "Mainly," Aguilar says, "what they're assigned to do is the taggings," the gang-specific graffiti found on school and playground walls.

Just as 1980s crack dealers attracted middle-class teens to the drug trade, Latino gangs find it easy to recruit in the suburban neighborhoods that immigrant parents work two jobs to afford.

Sadly, in too many cases, parents' efforts to build a better life for their children backfire. The fact that Mom and Dad are away day and night working extra shifts contributes mightily to the gangs' attraction as a street family.

A spurt in gang violence has put more cops in the schools, but public dollars would be better spent to involve more parents in their children's schooling and envelop immigrant kids in school-based activities.

There's nothing magical about the solution: Look at San Miguel Middle School in Mount Pleasant, an all-Latino Catholic school that steers its students clear of gangs with long days, weekend and summer sessions, English and parenting classes for moms and dads, and teacher conferences at the parents' convenience. School becomes even more all-consuming than a gang.

Kids want to belong to something; kids who have nothing to belong to are easy prey.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com