- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Northern Virginia police and lawmakers said yesterday they have refocused their efforts on stopping gang violence, after being sidetracked several months by the 2002 sniper shootings.

In the last 10 days, two task forces have been named — one statewide and another for a section of Northern Virginia. They will work with a task force that has covered all of Northern Virginia for the last five years.

Gangs in Northern Virginia, the District and parts of Maryland have been growing in size and activity over the last few years. The increase has been fueled by immigrants, largely Salvadoran, who bring a “gang culture” from their native country, Fairfax County Police said. They also said some of the immigrants have received paramilitary training in South America.

Many gang members join for “an identity and a sense of belonging, and strength in numbers,” said Mary Ann Jennings, spokeswoman for the Fairfax police. “A lot of them don’t speak [English] or have regular employment.”

She also said the gangs are committing more serious crimes than before, moving from graffiti and petty crimes to assaults, strong-armed robberies and car thefts. Miss Jenning also said many of the violent crimes are committed by one gang against another.

Police suspect about 4,300 Northern Virginian residents ages 14-to-24 are gang members, she also said.

Federal and state officials have stepped in to stop the violence, reviving efforts that were on track before last fall’s sniper shootings diverted all of the region’s law enforcement resources.

“We have a gang problem in Virginia,” Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said last week at a news conference to announce a statewide gang task force. He called gangs a “growing problem” that has steadily spread outward from urban areas.

The task forced named Monday is in the commonwealth’s 10th Congressional District and will operate on $500,000 in federal money secured with the help of Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican.

A spokesman for Mr. Wolf, chairman of the Commerce and Justice State Appropriations Committee, said Mr. Wolf is committed to providing as much money, if not more, next year to combat gang violence.

The 10th Congressional District task force will include police officers from every jurisdictions within the district, and federal agents. Task force members plan to use a computer database to share their findings with police antigang units already established in Northern Virginia.

“We will prosecute everyone who tries to destroy the quality of life in this community,” said Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Gang activity is hard to pinpoint, but the worst problems in Fairfax are in the Culmore neighborhood, near Seven Corners, Ms. Jennings said.

Some of the gangs are Vietnamese or Cambodian, but most are Latino.

Latinos represent less than 5 percent of Virginia’s total population of 7 million, but nearly 20 percent of Arlington County’s population is Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Latinos make up 11 percent of the population in Fairfax County, 10 percent in Prince William County and 6 percent in Loudon County.

While some Latino gang members have come from the West Coast to help recruit and train new members, most metropolitan-area gang members are from El Salvador, Ms. Jennings said.

More than 1 million Salvadorans fled their country in the 1980’s because of a violent civil war that began in 1980 and killed about 70,000 people over 12 years.

In the District, Latino gangs have been waging an escalating street war for the last few years.

The most recent attack occurred Monday evening in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where one man was killed and three were injured in a drive-by shooting. The male victims were Salvadoran in their early 20s, and the shootings may have been retribution for a fatal shooting that happened early Saturday morning in the same neighborhood.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles A. Ramsey increased the reward last week from $10,000 to $25,000 for information that leads to convictions in homicide cases. Chief Ramsey said he increased the amount because few people were coming forward to help.

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