It’s the late 1980s. Violence reigns in El Salvador. The nation eats away at itself, civil war ripping people from their homes and chasing them to safer places. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans come to the United States, mostly California and Texas, seeking refuge.
Harassment and violence welcome these young Salvadorans, mostly at the hands of an infamous California-based gang, 18th Street. But these young men are familiar with violence, too, and they refuse to cower. Instead they come together for protection and reprieve, for there is strength in numbers. They listen to music, sometimes they get high, but mostly they bask in the safety and friendship that has eluded them for most of their lives. Before long they’re attracting a new kind of social refugee, more interested in the paranormal than friendship. These newcomers are at best infatuated with dark spirits and at worst worship dark spiritual forces. Things escalate fast, and soon there are initiations, acts of violence, even murder. A few get arrested and deported to El Salvador, and they eagerly bring the movement back to their communities overseas. The avalanche has begun. The crew isn’t just a safe space for friendship anymore, it’s a gang.
This is the story of MS-13, the most dangerous gang in the United States.
A Longstanding Threat
Gangs are an age-old concern for the DC Metro Area. Ever since the late 80’s MS-13 has been a reliable threat. Their presence rises and falls, but within the past five years law enforcement has seen an uptick in gang recruitment, and gang violence has become Northern Virginia’s enemy #1. Earlier this year a brutal murder of a teenage girl by one of her friends shocked and appalled our community.
Though MS-13 is the most present and violent gang threat in Northern Virginia, it is not a lone wolf. Police told Fox News that they have identified 80 gangs in Fairfax County. Others include notorious gangs like the Bloods and local gangs like Culmore City. However, according to the Washington Post 70% of Fairfax County’s roughly 5,000 gang members are part of MS-13, a gang known for its violence and brutality. One FBI agent told WTOP that MS-13 has a “more advanced and regulated structure than many other gangs in the United States.”
The Most Vulnerable Targets
Gang members are crafty in their recruitment. They target poor, vulnerable regions where they can prey on at-risk youth. Young people have been attracted to gangs for similar reasons ever since MS-13’s inception: they crave protection and belonging. Many are naive to the risks of joining forces and oblivious to the grave depths of violence their fellow members are willing to commit.
Within the past several years gangs have set their sights on middle schools to increase their numbers. Sometimes gang members even target low-performing classes to find young people who may be insecure and craving affirmation and purpose. In a 2009 report, detailed by WTOP, the Northern Virginia task force said that three-quarters of gang members in Northern Virginia remembered joining by the time they were 14 and one-quarter said they had joined by age 12. Lanham, executive director of the Northern Virginia Task Force, says that the percentage of young recruits is increasing.
The connection is simple: the more vulnerable a child the more of a target they will be for a gang.
An Effective Response
The threat feels familiar to most Northern Virginians, but gangs have changed in insidious ways over the years, and they are not to be misunderstood. Gangs are rapidly recruiting new members, using new methods to finance themselves — trafficking people rather than drugs — and communicating via social media rather than on the streets.
Perhaps the best way to respond to gangs isn’t a defensive approach but an offensive one. That is to say, strengthening vulnerable communities and giving impressionable youth a sense of of purpose and affirmation is a proactive reaction to gang activity.
According to the fairfaxcounty.gov Gang Prevention resources, kids claim they got involved in gangs because they desired to be loved, to be part of a group. Thus, one of the most effective ways to prevent further gang recruitment must be to affirm youth that they are loved and give them safe places to belong.
Captain Paul Cleveland of Fairfax County’s anti-gang unit says that having places to bring at-risk kids is vital, whether an after-school program or extracurricular activity. “It all has to work through…efforts in the community,” Cleveland told WTOP.
Second Story’s Local Response
20 years ago, gangs were a serious threat in Culmore. Together, Fairfax County and Second Story brainstormed solutions and decided to open Second Story’s Culmore Teen Center as a safe place for young people to spend their time after school. Since then, Second Story’s three Safe Youth Projects have been created for 4th, 5th and 6th graders as a reaction to gangs recruiting younger children. “To have kids after school unsupervised in a dangerous area, they are very prone to be in trouble,” says Nandred Navarro, Vice President of Community Based Services at Second Story. As with all of Second Story’s programs, the Safe Youth Projects seek to break the cycle of poverty and vulnerability. “More often than not, our young people are breaking this cycle,” Navarro explains proudly.
The presence of after school programs is making a deep impact, and even with the resurgence of gang activity in the DC metro area 100% of Second Story’s young people have remained gang-free.
When asked how to prevent gang activity in Northern Virginia one of the first responses from Fairfax County’s anti-gang unit is to fund and encourage after-school programs like Second Story’s. The proof lies in the young people that attend Second Story’s programs everyday — it is working.