- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Montgomery County, looking to stem a growing youth-violence problem, has hired an anti-gang specialist who survived his own youthful stint as a member of a gang while growing up in the District.

Luis Cardona, who has worked with at-risk youth in the region for more than a decade, brings a different perspective to the anti-gang effort: His focus is on rehabilitation, not criminalization.

“You can’t arrest your way out of this,” said Mr. Cardona, 38.

He was hired in mid-October as the county’s anti-gang coordinator, but he is paid by and will report to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, not the county police department.

When he talks about fixing the gang problem, he speaks of bringing “healing” to hurting young men and women and giving them jobs, activities, counseling and hope.

“I have my own children, but I see a lot of these young folks as my children, too. I try to provide them with the love and comfort they don’t get at home,” said Mr. Cardona, an unmarried father of two.

“Growing up, I didn’t have anybody coming up, saying, ‘Hey, Luis, let me talk to you about life, setting goals, going to college,’” he said.

Mr. Cardona was raised by a single, Guatemala-born mother in the overwhelminglyHispanic Mount Pleasant section of the District, and began committing crimes in middle school. He would not name the gang he joined during his teens, because he says naming a gang glorifies it.

In 1987, at age 20, he was arrested in Montgomery County for drug distribution. In 1991, he was shot five times after being involved in a late-night brawl at a city nightclub.

He received a call in the hospital. “We’re coming to finish the job,” the caller said.

Mr. Cardona, who was in college when he was shot, graduated from Howard University with a degree in political science in 1993. He eventually left the gang lifestyle and began to reach out to young Hispanics, taking them away from their usual haunts to play football on weekends, hang out and do something other than get high or drunk.

Mr. Cardona has worked for Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, and in recent years has done consulting work on preventing gang activity for local governments and police forces around the region, including in the District.

Now he is the point man on gang prevention in an affluent county that was shocked last summer when gang members attacked and stabbed two teens outside Springbrook High School. Hours later, four other teens were stabbed in retaliation outside a nearby mall.

“We have a gang problem in the Washington region. In Montgomery County, we are working very hard to stay ahead of that problem. We don’t have a crisis on our hands, and we are working to avert it,” said David Weaver, spokesman for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Northern Virginia has dealt with Hispanic gangs for several years, and estimates of the number of gang members there range from 2,000 to 3,000.

Montgomery County police have estimated that there are about 2,500 gang members in their county as well, concentrated mostly in the lower portion of the county and in Olde Towne Gaithersburg.

Nationally, the FBI has created a national gang intelligence center and a task force dedicated, in name at least, to stopping one specific gang. They estimate that there are 800,000 gang members in 30,000 gangs across the country, and say they are focused on preventing the gangs from becoming “the new American mafia.”

Mr. Cardona, however, is focused on talking to gang members and helping them through what he calls a therapeutic healing process.

Mr. Cardona, who will earn an $83,390 salary in the position, will coordinate all of the county’s youth programs, and programs specifically aimed at gang prevention, to try to divert youths from joining gangs. He will also oversee a new youth center in Langley Park, which will receive $250,000 in county money annually.

County Council President Tom Perez, Takoma Park Democrat, and the son of Dominican immigrants, led the charge last spring to oppose a $1 million budget request from Mr. Duncan for a police anti-gang unit.

But Mr. Perez and the council approved $4 million for programs that either work to prevent children from joining gangs or work with kids who already have.

Mr. Perez told a recent meeting of parents and community activists in Silver Spring that the gang issue needs a three-pronged approach of suppression, intervention and prevention, and that in Montgomery, “the two legs of intervention and prevention continue to be a little rickety.”

Mr. Perez, who has served as president of the board of directors for Casa de Maryland, said he is “very excited” about Mr. Cardona’s hire.

“Luis can walk into a meeting of our kids and command instant credibility, and that’s very important,” Mr. Perez said.

But while Mr. Cardona has relied on his street credibility to reach out to youth for years, he is wary of oversized expectations.

“I want to get away from the perception that I’m the savior of the county,” he said.

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