- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

More than 400 residents, most of them Hispanic, attended a forum on gang violence yesterday at a Columbia Heights church to offer suggestions and seek help in ending the bloodshed in their neighborhood.

Many in the audience told the panel of religious leaders and D.C. officials at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church that it will take better schools and government-sponsored job training and youth activities, not just more police, to end the violent reign of gangs.

The neighborhood has lost four young men to gang violence this summer. The church, in the 3200 block of Sacred Heart Way NW, counted two of the victims, Donis Beltazar Arias and Samuel Arias Avila, as parishioners.

Mr. Arias was fatally shot July 26 as he rode a bicycle in Columbia Heights. Police said a drive-by shooting two days later at a nearby strip mall was gang retaliation for his killing. That time four men were shot, one of them fatally.

In a separate gang rivalry, Mr. Avila was fatally shot Aug. 2 on Hawaii Avenue NE. Police said his killing led to a retaliatory shooting Aug. 4 in an alley in the 1700 block of Columbia Road NW.

The victim shot in the alley had non-life-threatening wounds.

Similar gang violence has been on the rise in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, as indicated by the presence of Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glen Ivey at yesterday’s forum.

The parents who spoke out at the forum, many of them immigrants who work multiple jobs, said they need the aid of federal and city government to give their children an alternative to joining gangs. Some warned that the gang problem will only get worse unless conditions improve in their neighborhoods.

“An after-school activity center is something that would counter gang activity and involvement,” one woman told the panel.

A man who gave his name only as Mario said that the gangs will continue to flourish as long as Hispanic families live in poverty with little hope for the future.

“We need to take into account that we are living in subhuman conditions,” he said. “I am convinced that even as we speak the gangs are recruiting.”

The forum, which was conducted mostly in Spanish, was sponsored by the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic parish, the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, and D.C. Council members Jack Evans, Jim Graham and Adrian M. Fenty.

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a consortium of 39 D.C. churches, said that the large turnout sent a powerful message to city leaders that the people demand action.

“The goal is to see the federal, city and corporate leaders step up with real job opportunities for the Latino community,” Mr. Lynch said. “We have failed to provided good job opportunities to the Latino community, and it is time we did that.”

Mr. Evans yesterday was at the funeral of his wife, Noel Soderberg Evans, and did not attend the forum. Mr. Graham and Mr. Fenty arrived late for the forum after attending the funeral, though both sent staff to the entire two-hour forum.

Mr. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, told the crowd that the D.C. Council was concerned with all the issues surrounding the gang problem.

“We are very aggressively working on the graffiti issue,” Mr. Fenty said to resounding applause. “Other cities recognize that this is not only an aesthetics problem but directly linked to violence in the community.”

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said that to fight gangs the city would also have to fight joblessness, poor education and poverty.

“This is everybody’s concern,” he said. “This is not just the concern of the Latino community.”

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