Six months after he served more than a year in jail for disposing of a body in a gang-related killing in Montgomery County, Nelson Bernal was back on the streets, lying in wait outside a county high school -- preparing, police say, to attack members of a rival Latino gang.
Police say he stabbed David Gamero in the head, chest and abdomen and Juan Quito Jr. in the lower back in the parking lot of Springbrook High School on Aug. 5. According to a county prosecutor, the attackers shouted, "Mara Salvatrucha!"
Bernal, 24, is back in jail, along with seven other suspects in the high school stabbing, and immigration authorities said they plan to deport him. They didn't take that step in 2004, when local officials alerted them that he was a convicted felon and in this country illegally.
Bernal, an El Salvador native, lived and committed crimes in Maryland and Virginia. He "personifies the need for information sharing that goes beyond the boundaries of counties, states and the federal government," said Montgomery police Sgt. Robert Carter.
Gang investigators in the Washington region routinely rely on word-of-mouth assistance from counterparts in other jurisdictions. But as Mara Salvatrucha and other Latino gangs expand their presence in the area, some officials say they need more formal and reliable means of sharing information about an enemy that crosses local, state and international borders.
If such mechanisms had been in place early this decade, Carter said, "maybe we could have gotten Bernal out of here earlier."
Such complaints echo the hindsight of the intelligence community in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI has created a National Gang Intelligence Center and is developing a gang strategy, targeted first at Mara Salvatrucha. These efforts, however, have yet to produce specific tools, such as national or regional databases devoted to gangs, that local law enforcers could use easily.
"There is a lot more obvious crossover between jurisdictions, especially with MS-13," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, the U.S. attorney for the District, using a shorthand term for the gang. "They haven't hit us yet with the level of violence we've seen in Northern Virginia, but we need to be prepared to head that off."
His counterpart in Northern Virginia, Paul J. McNulty, said his office has prosecuted several gang cases, and the newly sworn U.S. attorney in Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, said he is developing a "specific strategy" to counter gang violence.
Not everyone agrees that sharing information is the solution.
"It's something that we really, really have to explore deeply, even before we do it," said Lt. Michael Pavlik, who heads the D.C. police intelligence unit. "Different jurisdictions use different criteria for identifying gang members. In the law circles throughout the country, everybody has a different definition of a gang member."
Perceptions of the local threat vary, in large part because the Latino gangs are so loosely knit. In Montgomery, for instance, police say there are about 20 gangs with 500 members; the state's attorney says there are 80 gangs with 2,000 to 3,000 members. Fairfax police say 2,500 gang members are in their county, and D.C. police estimate a gang membership of 800 to 1,000.
The gangs have lured hundreds of children, some as young as grade-school age into their midst in the past few years, investigators say. Because victims of violence and targets of recruitment are so young, police are forced to fight gangs not only on suburban streets but in middle and elementary schools and at after-school clubs. In Fairfax, police say gangs have a presence in every high school.
A decade ago, officials in Montgomery and other area jurisdictions shied away from any public acknowledgment of the presence of gangs, particularly in schools. But now elected officials hold lengthy hearings on the problem, as the Montgomery County Council did in June and July.
Gang Against Gang
After fleeing civil war in their country, Salvadoran immigrants founded MS-13 in Los Angeles in the early 1980s in part as a defense against established Mexican gangs. Since then, it has spread to more than 30 states and several Central American nations.
MS-13 members began appearing in Northern Virginia in the early 1990s, along with such Los Angeles-based gangs as 18th Street and South Side Locos. Police and federal investigators said the local versions of these gangs have not organized their criminal activity as well as their West Coast counterparts: There is little drug dealing and few sustained auto theft or robbery operations. Mostly, the gangs inflict damage on each other, part of a code that requires them to battle any rival.
Former Fairfax police chief J. Thomas Manger, who became Montgomery's chief Feb. 1, 2004, said the gang problem in the jurisdictions is similar. "In Fairfax, it was pockets: Baileys [Crossroads], Route 1, Falls Church. It's the same situation here. There's probably more neighborhood gangs here, and we have more African American gangs. But 90 percent of the problem over here in Montgomery County is Latino gangs. . . . It goes down the [Interstate] 270 corridor: Montgomery Village, Gaithersburg, Wheaton, Silver Spring to Takoma Park."
At least 20 homicides have been linked to Latino gangs in the region since 2000, including seven in Fairfax, four in the District and three in Montgomery.
Authorities said last year that they believed the West Coast gangs had been imploring their East Coast offshoots to delve deeper into more established, profit-making crimes, such as drug-dealing, and to stay away from random violence. Police said that hasn't happened and noted that graffiti and assaults make up the majority of gang-related crime reports.
In 2003, in response to a surge of violence connected to Latino gang rivalry that killed four people, D.C. police and community groups formed a task force to track the gangs, share intelligence and intervene in disputes. The group, known as the Gang Intervention Partnership, has 10 D.C. police officers assigned to work full time on the issue, police said.
Police and prosecutors said the unit's success is demonstrable: Since late 2003, no killings have been connected to Latino gangs.
Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, convened a gang summit in February, and Fairfax hired a full-time gang prevention coordinator.
"I think that, initially, most of the focus was on law enforcement and suppression," Connolly said. "Now we need to shift and put more on the prevention and intervention."
Sharon Wentland, a program director with Barrios Unidos, a national community outreach group in Hispanic neighborhoods, said Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria police and social services are more focused on the issue now.
She said she has been encouraged by Fairfax's new social initiatives but added, "The answer is that people are going to have to get up and spend some time with a kid. The kids are out there, waiting to be saved."
Across the river, Montgomery is spending nearly $5 million on gang-prevention programs this year and $12 million on programs that address the gang issue indirectly. Now, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said, "we're certainly beefing up the enforcement side with what Manger has brought from Virginia."
Duncan's efforts to expand enforcement were partially derailed by the County Council, which earlier this year vetoed his budget plan to expand Montgomery's six-member police gang unit by adding a sergeant and six detectives. Instead, the council added only the sergeant.
Prince George's County spent $300,000 in 2003 to initiate a youth empowerment program targeted at gang prevention. The county maintains a gang unit that includes four Prince George's officers and participates in a task force with representatives from federal, state and local agencies.
Officials throughout the region concede that police departments also must do more to attract Spanish-speaking officers. Only 3 percent of Montgomery's officers are fluent in the language; in Fairfax the figure is just under 4 percent. "We need more," Duncan said.
Reaching Across Borders
Gang investigators throughout the region say one of their best means of cooperation is a group called the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network, or MARGIN, which was formed in 1992 to bring together members of federal, state and local agencies.
Lt. Richard Perez, a former Fairfax homicide detective, said he went to a MARGIN meeting in 2003 with an unsolved gang murder. He showed the group a surveillance photo taken of a possible suspect, for whom Perez had only a nickname, "Mexico." An investigator from Arlington knew the person's real name.
"That provided the crack that broke open the case," Perez said.
Regional task forces -- one based in Northern Virginia and one based in Prince George's -- provide a partial answer to the need for more cooperation, but officials said they need resources that span boundaries. Manger said a project to create a database linking the region's police departments is underway at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The FBI launched a national MS-13 task force in December, and is about to open a National Gang Intelligence Center, which will serve as an information clearinghouse. The center is constructing a special Web page for law enforcement use and hopes to offer police investigators access to a gang database, FBI officials said.
"We're all sharing information," said Donald G. Robinson, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who leads the task force based in Prince George's. "I think we've all learned the lessons" of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, are getting involved. McNulty said his office has prosecuted three of Northern Virginia's gang murders. He hinted that his office also might take on the August 2004 slaying of an MS-13 member in Manassas.
Although the FBI and ATF are involved in the effort to combat gang violence in Maryland, there have not been any major federal prosecutions of MS-13 in the state. Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said he hopes the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland will take a more active roll under Rosenstein, who took office last month. "They can prosecute the entire gang in one fell swoop where we don't have that ability," Gansler said, referring to federal racketeering laws.
"These gangs pose a severe threat to public safety, and their growth must not go unchallenged," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said two weeks ago in announcing the results of Operation Community Shield, overseen by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the department.
In a five-month campaign to deport illegal immigrants with suspected ties to violent criminal groups, federal immigration and customs officers arrested 1,057 suspected gang members and associates nationwide. Nearly 100 were picked up in the Washington area, including, in a two-week period in July, 11 Northern Virginia-based members or affiliates of MS-13.
The crackdown came after local authorities sought assistance from customs officials to arrest and remove more than 100 foreign-born MS-13 members from Charlotte in 2003 and to arrest 45 suspected gang members in San Diego last fall, immigration officials said. Since then, there has been a decline in murders in Charlotte attributed to MS-13.
"We are sensitive to the scattering of opinion related to immigration enforcement. I can understand local officials coming down one way or the other on enforcement," said John Clark, deputy assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "But I think we are coming into agreement . . . when you're looking at violent criminal gangs, it's hard to say you shouldn't go after them."
Sliding Through Cracks
Despite these efforts at cooperation and coordination, Bernal's case shows that gang members can slip through the hands of law enforcers. "In 2004," Gansler said, "federal immigration officials were notified that [Bernal] was an illegal alien who had been convicted of a felony. Federal agencies informed local authorities that he was going to be deported. Clearly he was not."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Dean Boyd, informed about Gansler's assertion late Friday, said, "There is no way I can verify or disprove the allegation." He added, however, that the division routinely detains and deports illegal immigrants who violate the law. He said that since Bernal's arrest last week on attempted murder and other charges, federal authorities have filed an immigration detainer for Bernal and plan to deport him after his legal proceedings in Maryland are completed.
In the sweltering heat of the construction site, Bernal, also known as Alfredo Sanchez, occasionally would take off his T-shirt to cool down. That's when Francisco Rodriguez saw the letters tattooed across his stomach: "MS."
During the last few years that Sanchez worked for Rodriguez framing houses, that was all the boss knew of his employee's affiliation with Mara Salvatrucha. Sanchez never talked about his gang life, Rodriguez said, or about much else in his private life.
"He was quiet; he didn't talk much. He worked hard," said Rodriguez, 38, of Hyattsville. "He was never disrespectful to me or anyone else who worked here."
Staff writers Karin Brulliard, Fulvio Cativo, Dan Eggen, Spencer S. Hsu, Allison Klein, Fredrick Kunkle, Nancy Lewis, Joshua Partlow, Eric Rich, Ian Shapira, Jamie Stockwell and Del Quentin Wilber and researchers Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
An officer from the 4th Police District searches a suspected gang member at an apartment building in Northwest Washington after a disturbance.
Surrounded by mourners, Elvia Sagastizado, left, weeps at the burial of her son Milton, a victim of gang-related violence.Montgomery Police Chief J. Thomas Manger was chief in Fairfax County.