- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — When the body of a pregnant teenager was discovered on a riverbank last year, local authorities realized that violent street gangs commonly associated with big cities were gaining a presence in the Shenandoah Valley.

Brenda Paz, a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) street gang who became an informant, died of multiple stab wounds after she voluntarily left a witness-protection program. Her body was found in July 2003.

Since then, law-enforcement officials have formed regional alliances to identify gang members and monitor their activities.

“We’ve learned on the narcotics side of it that there are no jurisdictional borders when it comes to this type of activity,” Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron said.

Winchester and counties in the northern valley have formed a regional gang task force patterned after the one in Northern Virginia. Police in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have asked for local funding to combine their gang investigations.

This multijurisdictional approach to addressing violent gangs is the first of its kind for rural areas of the state, the Virginia Gang Investigators Association says.

Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore has made fighting gangs a priority, boosted by stiffer penalties approved by the state legislature. Task forces in Northern Virginia and the northern valley have received $2.5 million in federal funding for their anti-gang efforts this year.

Meanwhile, officers in the Harrisonburg area have been trained to decipher the colors, letters and symbols that have been showing up on walls and on inmates’ tattoos with alarming frequency in recent years.

“Our main objective right now is to stay a step ahead of it,” said Capt. Tim Walton of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office.

Police think members of MS-13, Sureno 13 and other Hispanic gangs have trickled in through family connections to migrant workers from the South and the West who work on valley farms and in processing plants.

Members of other groups such as the Bloods, Crips, Vice Lords, Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples became familiar with the region while traveling on Interstates 95, 66 and 81. They stay for a couple of years, recruit local members and then leave, said Cpl. Corrie Bauserman of the Rockingham Sheriff’s Office.

Members of the Crips travel east from Interstate 70 in the Midwest, eventually to Interstate 64. Bloods have come in from the South, and MS-13 and Sureno 13 members tend to come from California and the Southwest, Cpl. Bauserman said.

Violence has been mainly low-level, sporadic and directed against other gang members, police say.

In Staunton last year, four Crips members were convicted for their roles in a stabbing death of a member who wanted to leave the group. One of the men who was convicted had recruited the others locally after moving to the Augusta County area from Baltimore.

Graffiti has been the primary nuisance so far, but there has been some escalation, said Sgt. Chris Rush of the Harrisonburg Police Department.

“For about the past year, we’ve seen a gradual growth from just the graffiti into some larcenies, some drug charges, and now some violent crimes involving some stabbings,” he said.

Authorities have identified about 100 members of violent gangs in the Harrisonburg area. Police to the north think there are dozens more in their jurisdictions.

Gang activity has been only minimally connected to the region’s voluminous methamphetamine traffic, police say. However, a May drug raid by the northern valley drug task force resulted in the arrests of 47 persons, most of whom were suspected members of MS-13.

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