- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

Officials in Northern Virginia said yesterday they have seen a decrease in violent gang activity since the creation of a federally funded task force to combat gang violence in the region.

“We are not saying our gang problem is eradicated,” said Leesburg Police Chief Joseph R. Price, co-chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. But “we are seeing some very positive results.”

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, spearheaded the task force’s creation in 2003 by securing $516,000 in federal funds. In 2004, the 11 agencies that belonged to the task force reported 1,710 gang-related crimes committed in Northern Virginia.

The number of crimes committed by gangs fell to 1,415 in 2005, and officials said the 16 jurisdictions that now make up the task force have reported 800 gang crimes through June of this year. Police also made 326 gang-related arrests through June, with 155 of those leading to felony charges.

Minus minor crimes like graffiti vandalism, officials said the number of gang-committed crimes decreased by 39 percent between 2004 and 2005, and that pattern has stayed stable so far this year.

Officials also said there have been no gang-related homicides reported in Northern Virginia this year.

“The concern with gangs are the violent acts they often move toward,” Chief Price said. “That’s really [our] focus as far as criminal investigations.”

The task force was created after a surge in gang activity in Northern Virginia, specifically among the group Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 — a Salvadoran street gang that originated in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and has been responsible for many deaths and other violent acts in the D.C. area in recent years.

In 2004, an MS-13 member attacked a 16-year-old rival gang member in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County with a machete, hacking off four fingers from the boy’s left hand and nearly severing his right hand.

Most recently, police said they think MS-13 is responsible for the July 1 fatal shooting of three men in Prince George’s County.

Officials with the task force — which partners federal agencies such as the FBI with local and state police — said they hope to receive about $2.5 million in federal funding in fiscal 2007.

Nearly 51 percent of the funds will go to law-enforcement suppression efforts, officials said. The rest will fund gang prevention and intervention efforts, such as after-school activities and tattoo-removal programs.

Task force officials also plan to open six Boys and Girls clubs in Northern Virginia next year and hope to have operating by October a network of gang intervention services — preferably run-through partnerships with nonprofit and faith-based organizations.

“For some of these gang members, it’s like climbing a greased flagpole, and they need help getting out,” said Robert Vilchez, gang intervention coordinator for Arlington County and Falls Church.

The task force also has partnered with prosecutors and immigration officials to crack down on gangs.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said agents, through their participation in the task force, have arrested 303 gang members on criminal and administrative immigration violations. Roughly 21 of those gang members were prosecuted for illegally trying to re-enter the United States, officials said.

Local police said the task force’s focus on combating gangs has led jurisdictions throughout Northern Virginia to take a proactive approach, and the results are positive.

“In 2005, we had 22 gang offenses and 31 graffiti cases. As of today, there’s been one gang crime,” said Lt. Brett Hoover, a spokesman for Alexandria police. “As you can see, there’s a big difference.”

Adoree Kim contributed to this report.

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