LONG BEFORE "MS-13" became a familiar, dreaded name in too many area neighborhoods, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) was sounding an alarm about gang violence. For a long time, few state or local officials were tuning in. It took a string of grisly machete hackings and shootings of teenagers last year to spark a serious reaction to the growing presence of gangs, especially the swelling ranks of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Thanks largely to Mr. Wolf's dogged, successful pursuit of federal money to do something, Northern Virginia now has a task force focusing on how best to understand the culture and allure of gangs. In addition, local authorities are working on various programs, trying not to duplicate efforts.
But the allure and reach of the gangs knows no jurisdictional limitations; gang violence is regional. To boost Maryland's anti-gang efforts, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) recently went to Mr. Wolf for help in securing federal funds. "He was very receptive," Mr. Van Hollen noted, and with additional support from the Maryland congressional delegation, the result is some significant help: The federal government is set to provide $2.4 million for the Montgomery and Prince George's Counties Joint Gang Suppression and Prevention Initiative.
The funding is no unrestricted showering of federal dollars for vague missions or fancy hardware. It is earmarked to establish centralized gang units and investigative teams within the police forces of both counties, which until now have been temporary and somewhat loose-knit operations; to establish programs that will cross county lines and include programs both during and after school in hot-spot areas, with mentoring, mental health services and other assistance; and to provide shelters and activities for youths trying to leave gangs -- which are easy to join and hard to quit.
It's unclear just how successful any of these efforts will prove to be, given the still skimpy knowledge of gang life in this region. Authorities do know that too many parents and schools have been slow to recognize the signs of gang membership, to share information and to get involved in making school life more compelling to the young and restless. That will take more than a federal appropriation.