Monday, August 15, 2005

BLOOMERY, W.Va. — A secluded spot along the Shenandoah River where the loudest noises come from tires crunching gravel and water rushing over a dam seems an unlikely setting for a meeting of big-city gang members.

But here on a narrow road just across the Virginia line, authorities say, members of MS-13, one of the country’s most violent gangs, have begun to congregate.

“If you just drove through, you wouldn’t notice,” says Lt. Bobby Shirley of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. “But we sit and watch what they do.” He said the women serve picnics and children play as the men stand around “clearly doing business.”

MS-13 is shorthand for Mara Salvatrucha, a gang founded in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador. Federal authorities consider it one of the country’s most vicious street gangs and estimate it has about 10,000 members in more than 30 states.

Earlier this year, after several killings in the D.C. region, the FBI announced a crackdown. Hundreds of members have since been arrested and some have been deported.

But the gang is spreading out, in part, some say, to lower its profile.

West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, less than 70 miles from the District, offers a haven from prying eyes.

“We’re so close to Baltimore, Washington, even Philadelphia, that we’re getting an element that we definitely don’t want,” says state police Capt. Rob Blair, commander of the troop based in Charles Town, W.Va.

Police suspect MS-13 in only a few assaults and robberies, but Jefferson County Sheriff Ed Boober is certain the gang is present and preying on some of the county’s newest residents.

A growing number of Hispanic immigrants have found work here, lured by the apple orchards, the booming construction market and the thoroughbred racing industry at the Charles Town Races and Slots. However, they often arrive alone and friendless, a situation the gang can exploit.

“They’re recruiting everywhere,” Sheriff Boober said. “They’re looking for people who don’t belong. The bad thing is, once you join, you cannot unjoin.”

He acknowledged that gang activity is not pervasive, but says the warning signs are there: MS-13 graffiti on buildings, clothing emblazoned with “13,” “XIII” or “MS.” Teens at Jefferson High School weaving red bandannas through belt loops.

“It’s very quiet,” Sheriff Boober said. “It’s below the top of the water. But we know it’s there.”

Jared Lewis, a former Modesto, Calif., police officer said MS-13 markets the gang as a way to embrace Latin American heritage. Parents unfamiliar with American teen customs may not recognize what’s happening, mistakenly believing their children are just learning how to conform.

“They think all kids throw hand signs, all kids wear colors, all kids write these symbols on their books,” said Mr. Lewis, now director of Know Gangs, a group of consultants that educates police, teachers and social workers. “But I don’t know of any culture — Mexican, Irish, African-American, Polish, whatever — that gang membership is part of the heritage.”

In April, an FBI official testified before Congress about MS-13, whose members also come from Honduras and Guatemala. Three members of the Los Angeles crew moved to Northern Virginia in 1993 to recruit, and now there are some 1,500 members.

“It appears that the MS-13 is still a loosely structured street gang,” testified Chris Swecker, assistant director of the agency’s Criminal Investigative Division. “However, its threat is based on its violence and its potential to grow, not only geographically, but in its organization and sophistication.”

Later this month, Thomas E. Johnston, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, will hold a training session for local law-enforcement agencies. Officers must learn to protect themselves and their communities as the gang presence grows.

“I view this as something that’s possibly on the horizon,” Mr. Johnston said. “And certainly a potential threat worth preparing for.”

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