Prince George's County is home to the Washington area's third-largest Hispanic population, but it has had more Latino homicide victims this year than the rest of the region combined.
Twenty-two Latinos have died in homicides in Prince George's, and 17 have died elsewhere: five in Fairfax County, five in the District, two each in Arlington and Prince William counties, and one each in Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
About one of every five homicides of Latinos in the region -- at least eight of the 39 -- has involved suspected gang members, according to law enforcement officials.
This year, Prince George's has matched its homicide record of 154 killings, set in 1991. The number of homicides in the District is higher, at 167. But the number of Latino victims is more than four times greater in Prince George's than in the District.
Police point out that the Hyattsville-Langley Park area, where most of the Prince George's Latino homicides have taken place, has one of the densest Latino populations in the region.
Prince George's authorities say they are particularly worried about the rise in Latino homicides -- there were 19 last year -- because 13 Latinos died in the three-month period of August through October, an average of one every week.
"The Hispanic community has suffered a lot lately," said Capt. Andrew Ellis of the Prince George's police.
This year, Latino victims make up 14 percent of the county's total, although the ethnic group represents only 10 percent of the population.
The victims in Prince George's include Josefa Arias, 62, the only Latino woman killed this year and the oldest to die. She was found dead in March in her Hyattsville home and was the sole victim of apparent domestic violence among Latinos.
All the other Latino victims in Prince George's were young men, age 35 or under, with an average age of 26. The two youngest were Jose Manuel Arias, 16, shot to death in a March 26 gang-related dispute, and Manales Cristobal Sanchez, also 16, beaten to death June 20 for having a tattoo with the number 18, which his attackers took to mean that he was a member of a rival gang.
Lt. Robert Nealon, commander of the homicide unit, said the rise in homicides among Latinos this year is partly a result of increasing gang activity in the county.
"We have seen an increase in gang-related incidents . . . more than last year," Nealon said. "We see more gang graffiti and gang activity in our communities. That's why we are keeping an eye on them."
Some of the five gang-related homicides in Prince George's involved the area's most well-known gang, Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, Nealon said.
In one case, on Oct. 23, Alejandro Rubi Hernandez, 22, was shot in the upper body when alleged members of MS-13 thought he was a member of a rival gang, police said. He was killed in front of an apartment building on 14th Avenue in Hyattsville, a street that has been the scene of numerous slayings, assaults, robberies and drug deals, police said.
Authorities believe that Hernandez was not a member of a gang. They said they have evidence that his attackers chanted "MS-13" at him and made signs with their fingers after they saw a family member of the victim wearing a jersey with the number 18.
"Another innocent victim," Nealon said.
Earlier this year, 19 suspected members of MS-13 were indicted on federal racketeering charges in 10 cases of murder or attempted murder in suburban Maryland from April 2003 to June 14 this year. Nine of the 10 attacks occurred in Prince George's County; one was in Montgomery County.
Another common factor in some of the homicides is the use of alcohol. In seven of the 22 cases, the victims or perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol, according to police records.
Although police say alcohol plays a similar role in homicide cases involving non-Latinos, some members of the Latino community say that alcohol has been a problem for years, especially in Langley Park and nearby areas.
"We often see people drinking on the streets. It's important to think about why too many Latinos are being affected by alcohol in this area and do something about it," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's). "Unfortunately there are liquor stores on every block in areas that are considered poor. And Langley Park is a place with lower-income people."
A few months ago, the county adopted a measure to close liquor stores at midnight, two hours earlier than before, he said.
On the morning of Aug. 10 on New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park, three men who police said were under the influence of alcohol were stabbed in front of the Toys R Us store; two of them died. Police believe that the attack, which remains under investigation, was drug-related.
"Alcohol surrounds a lot of our crime. That's because everybody knows that you're more vulnerable when you're drunk. It's an issue that we need to bring forward," Nealon said.
The majority of the victims were found on the street or in open areas, and nine of the killings occurred in daylight. Two victims were attacked during robberies, and some of the cases involved an argument or a fight. Six died of trauma, three were stabbed to death and 13 were shot. Eight of the cases remain open.
Latino victims in Prince George's are less likely to be killed by guns and less likely to be slain because of drugs than are non-Latino victims. Just over half of the county's Latino victims were killed by guns, and only five killings involved drugs. In contrast, about 80 percent of the county's total homicides were committed with a handgun, and two-thirds involved drugs.
Almost all the homicides involving Latinos in Prince George's were committed in the Langley Park-Hyattsville area or nearby neighborhoods where there is a big concentration of Latinos. Three incidents occurred in the 2100 block of Guilford Road in Chillum, and two occurred in the 8200 block of 14th Avenue.
Maj. Kevin Davis, commander of the 1st Police District in Hyattsville, said the county is aware of the high crime rate in this area. He said the department has an ongoing information campaign in Spanish seeking the cooperation of the Latino community in solving some of the cases.
Nealon said homicides involving Latinos require more time and resources.
"These cases are more complicated. People are often scared or don't trust you, and they tell you, 'I don't want to tell you what happened. You're going to get me in trouble,' " Nealon said.
Luz Lazo is an El Tiempo Latino staff writer. A Spanish language version of this article appears in this week's edition of El Tiempo Latino.