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Gang Activity Catches City's Attention

The recent arrest of four people who were involved in a gang-related shooting at Cameron Commons has raised the question about general gang activity in Alexandria.

Three adults and one juvenile were charged with felonious assault and knowingly participating in a criminal act for the benefit of a criminal street gang. Two of the adults, 20-year-old Luis Noe Lopez and 18-year-old Dennis Rivera, are city residents. The third adult, Amilcar Lopez-Melgar, 20, is a resident of Fairfax County. The 16-year-old juvenile, is a resident of Woodbridge. All are being held without bond.

The incident occurred on June 9, at around 12:45 a.m. Four people, three juveniles and one adult, sustained gunshot wounds. The wounds were non-life threatening.

The incident brings to the forefront a concern about increased gang activity in the city. “Compared to what we were seeing in the mid-1990's, there is hardly any gang activity in the city anymore,” said Detective Victor Ignacio, with the Alexandria Police Department. “There are four or five gangs that are active to some degree and two that are involved in most of the criminal activity that we are seeing.”

THESE TWO GANGS are Mara Salvatrucha or MS13 and Latin Homies or LH. “It used to be that you could only be a member of MS if you were from El Salvador, but that has changed,” Ignacio said. “Also, LH has some African-American and white members.”

Most of the gang activity in the city involves larceny and assault. “We aren’t seeing a lot of gang members with firearms. Many of these kids do not set out to commit a crime. They get together and drink or smoke and then start thinking stupid stuff. By themselves, many of them are good kids. They get involved in this kind of criminal activity when they are with the gang.”

Tom Cullen, an assistant commonwealth attorney who is the community prosecutor in Arlandria, agreed. “The weapons that we are seeing most often are baseball bats and golf clubs, not knives or guns,” Cullen said. “If a child has a bat and no glove and carries that bat around all of the time but doesn’t play baseball, he might be involved in something that you should check into. Also, it takes more than one golf club to play golf.”

Ignacio defined the term gang. “Two or more individuals who get together with things in common like clothing, colors, hand signs and have criminal intent,” he said. “If they don’t have some type of criminal intent, they aren’t a gang.”

ALEXANDRIA APPEARS to follow the national trend. Gang membership has declined, albeit slightly, since 1996. In 2000, there were estimated 772,500-gang members nationwide. Eighty-six percent of cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,00 reported persistent gang activity between 1996 and 2000, according to the National Youth Gang Center.

In 2000, 94 percent of all gang members were male and six percent were female. Thirty-nine percent of all youth gangs, nationally, reported having some female members. The most recent data that is available related to the age of gang members is from 1999 when 37 percent of all gang members were juvenile, younger than 18, and 63 percent were adults, older than 18. In 1999, the National Youth Gang Center reported that 47 percent of all gang members were Hispanic, 31 percent were African-American, 13 percent were white, seven percent were Asian and two percent were other.

While not all gang members in Alexandria are Hispanic, the two most active gangs at this time, are predominantly Hispanic. “We have not had any Asian gangs based in the city,” Ignacio said. “We did have a Philipino gang that was operating here in the 1990's but they are gone.”

CULLEN IS PLEASED there are no Asian gangs. “These gangs tend to be more violent and tend to run neighborhood protection rackets,” he said. “The gangs here are loosely organized around neighborhoods and it isn’t so much that you can’t come into this neighborhood if you are not a member of a certain gang but that you can’t come in if you are a member of a certain gang. For example, you don’t have to be a member of LH to go into the neighborhood that LH calls home, but you better not be a member of MS13 and come into the LH neighborhood.”

The age of the gang members is younger than it used to be. “We are seeing some kids as young as late elementary school,” Ignacio said. “These are usually the younger siblings or cousins of gang members and the younger kids think that it is cool to be like the older family member.”

The decline in gang activity is attributable to many factors, according to Cullen and Ignacio. “We now have some very good legislation that helps us,” Ignacio said. “We can charge minors with recruiting other minors and adults with recruiting minors into street gangs. Also, we can charge people with conducting criminal activity for the benefit of a street gang. This is another felony that will add time to their sentence if they are convicted. Some Commonwealth’s attorney’s offices are reluctant to use these statutes but here in Alexandria we use them as often as we can. It has been a lot of help.”

GETTING PEOPLE together to work in a coordinated fashion has also been helpful. “We meet with business owners and apartment complex managers and the two community police officers in Arlandria every month,” Cullen said. “Also, we go out and talk to any group who wants us to come. It really is about coordinating efforts.”

The message from both Cullen and Ignacio is that parents should be involved in their children’s lives. “Pay attention to what’s going on with your children,” Cullen said. “Look at your child’s homework. If you find doodling that includes the same letters over and over or if you see the same kind of sign, have someone check it out. It may not mean that the child is part of a gang but that the child has seen gang signs and symbols around the neighborhood. That’s important, too.”

Ignacio agreed. “If you don’t know who your child’s friends are, you should ask. Gang members like to write their symbols on things. Pay attention to that and call someone if you see something that you don’t understand,” he said.

Both Cullen and Ignacio emphasized that, in general, gangs are not attacking random citizens. “Ninety-nine percent of the gang violence is gang against gang,” Ignacio said. “We aren’t seeing gang members beating up random kids.”

THE SCHOOLS IN Alexandria have a zero tolerance for gang activity. “If someone sees a gang hand sign or writing that is gang-related at school, the child is suspended,” Cullen said. “That has been very helpful.”

The police have the same zero tolerance. “Most gang members know that we aren’t going to tolerate gang activity in the city,” Ignacio said. “We make all of the uniform officers aware of what’s going on and we don’t tolerate any of this kind of activity. Most gang members know that if they are going to participate in gang activity in Alexandria, we are going to catch them and they are going to be severely punished.”