- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

Montgomery County teenagers and young adults told lawmakers, county officials and residents at a Rockville meeting on gangs yesterday that young people need a place to belong — or they will turn to gangs.

“Give young people alternatives. Think about kids who are not in school,” said Juan Patheco, 28, who came to the forum dressed in stereotypical gang clothing.

As he spoke, he removed the red bandana from his shaved head and donned surgical scrubs. “I’m a student now at George Mason University, studying to become a pediatrician,” he said.

Almost everyone in the crowd of about 200 in the Montgomery County Council auditorium broke into applause.

The forum was organized by Montgomery Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez and praised by County Executive Douglas Duncan as the beginning of a regional and statewide effort to solve the burgeoning problem of violent gangs.

On Thursday, federal and Montgomery police arrested nine of 19 MS-13 gang members indicted on federal racketeering charges of murder, attempted murder and other acts of criminal conspiracy.

“We know we got a gang issue here, in Maryland, Virginia and the District,” Mr. Duncan said. “As bad as it might seem now, if we don’t do something now, it’s going to get much worse.”

The two dozen officials on hand, including police Chief Tom Manger, schools Superintendent Jerry Weast, and U.S. Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin, both Democrats, nodded in agreement.

Stefanny Aramayo, 16, was one of 11 young people to speak.

“When people join a gang, they think they may have the attention and love they didn’t get as they were growing up,” said Stefanny, speaking in Spanish, which was translated into English over loudspeakers.

But, “higher-ups” command gang members, who must obey or “they will become the victim of a crime,” she continued. “They can’t go any place to get help, so they are forced to stay in a gang.”

Kevin Sanchez, 18, urged officials “to reach into neighborhoods to the kids” to encourage education and provide jobs to help them and their families.

“You can intervene,” he said. “If no one had given me a chance to change, I wouldn’t have.”

Another youth said, “I was in a gang for two years,” because there were not enough after-school programs for Hispanic youths, no other friends and “a lot of problems at home.”

“In a gang, I felt like I had power,” he said, until he got in a fight and lost, was jailed and there were no gang friends to help him when he needed help.

“There are a lot of boys like me,” he said. “I ask you to trust and to help us.”

“A lot of young people in gangs have terrible family relations,” said another 18-year-old. “Unfortunately, most gang members are Latino, so they need help in places that speak Spanish,” he said.

The young man said he has attended many forums but has seen few results. “I’m tired of hearing promises that don’t amount to anything.”

The youths agreed that schools could help by offering after-school programs, bilingual classes and more Spanish-speaking teachers.

Mr. Van Hollen and Mr. Cardin spoke in support of the proposed Dream Act, which would give legal status to high school graduates of illegal-alien parents.

Michael, a recent Springbrook High School graduate, said a strong moral structure for youths would help. “It’s good to wake up each and every morning, saying, ‘I’m going to accomplish things that will help my neighbors and friends.’ ”

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