One man took a blow to the head from a machete in South Arlington. At a North Arlington park, several high school students stood by as a bandana-clad teen beat a 16-year-old with a baseball bat.
In recent weeks, violent crimes have given Arlington police officers reason to believe many of the 10 malicious wounding and assault by mob incidents reported in the month of August, as well as an attempted robbery at Ballston Common Mall on Aug. 28, are connected, the result of gang activity.
Officers say that gang violence, long a problem in South Arlington, is spreading to the north of the county as well, and police also believe some of the violence is linked to a gang standoff at the county fair Saturday, Aug. 23.
“We were at the fair, so we know that there was some connection there,” said detective Rick Rodriguez, who heads the Arlington Police Department’s gang unit. “It was confirmed through the people detained that certain gangs were involved in throwing bottles at people and trying to start something with what they perceived to be a rival gang.”
The number of violent crimes reported in recent weeks appeared to be abnormally high, said detective John Ritter, a police department spokesman. Currently, officers are studying the numbers to determine how much of an increase it was compared with this time in previous years.
While the crimes are troubling and have police on guard, Rodriguez stressed that average, law-abiding residents should not be alarmed. “Most gang violence is gang-on-gang,” he said.
Police closed down the county fair several minutes early in the interest of public safety, but Paul Showalter former president of the fair board, said even that may have been unnecessary.
“Gang guys are out there every weekend,” he said. “As long as we’ve been having the fair and there have been gangs in Arlington, Saturday is when they show up. We get the gang kids come up, and they walk around, strut their stuff and leave.”
GANG ACTIVITY ALONG Columbia Pike and other areas of South Arlington has attracted attention in the past, but recent events show the problem spreading.
On Aug. 23, a teenage gang member beat a 16-year-old boy with a baseball bat following an argument in Westover Park. Rodriguez confirmed the incident was gang-related.
“In years past, that was not a common gang area,” he said. “But in the last year-and-a-half to two years it’s come to our attention through school resource officer that several gang individuals are hanging out there.”
Residential areas in North Arlington have been insolated from gang activity in the past, but Rodriguez said a particular gang now frequents the soccer fields at Westover Park. Rival gangs know that as well, so they know where to go when they want to make an attack.
Residents of some South Arlington neighborhoods have dealt with the reality of gang violence for years. Paul Benda, president of the Columbia Forest Civic Association, said recent incidents haven’t alarmed residents. “There’s always been some problem along the Columbia Pike corridor,” he said.
Residents keep an eye on rising gang activity in the District and fear that in the future those groups could cross the Potomac more often, Benda said. But for now, gang activity hasn’t disrupted regular activities in Columbia Forest.
It’s rare for a regular citizen to fall victim to gang violence, Rodriguez said, but it does happen. “Every once in a while, you get an innocent person who gets misidentified,” said Rodriguez. “He may be wearing the wrong sports attire in a neighborhood where that would symbolize a rival gang. You might not even belong to a gang, but because you’re wearing the wrong colors or the wrong attire, you become a target for assault.”
WHETHER IN NORTH or South Arlington, many of the subjects responsible for recent violence are from Hispanic gangs. It’s a major concern for members of the Hispanic community, said Walter Tejada, who became the first Hispanic County Board member earlier this year. “Let’s not hide the fact that it’s an issue,” he said.
But Tejada said many minorities also worry that increased attention to gang activity could lead to stereotyping. He likened it to the reports of discrimination against Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks. “A lot of immigrants across the country are under a cloud because of the actions of a few terrible people,” he said. “It’s completely unfair to hardworking families, which is 99.9 percent of the immigrants in this country.”
Speaking as a board member, Tejada urged people throughout the county to work together with police officers to address the gang problem. “Sometimes relationships aren’t the best between the [Hispanic] community and the police,” he said. “[But] citizens must continue to inform the police about any gang activity that they notice, and continue to cooperate with the police.”
GETTING INFORMATION from witnesses to gang activity often proves difficult, Rodriguez said. Because most victims are members of rival gangs, they are less likely to tell police the full story.
In those cases, victims often don’t want their attackers arrested, because they want the chance to retaliate. That’s part of the reason Rodriguez is concerned about any increase in gang violence — a few incidents can quickly lead to a cycle of attacks and retaliation.
Detectives from the gang and homicide/robbery units arrested Freddy Alberto Juarez on Wednesday, Sept. 3, for making threats against an Arlington police officer. The 24-year-old Columbia Pike resident was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and participation in a criminal street gang.
Rodriguez called the arrest a victory, but officers know gangs continue to pose a threat. “It’s just the beginning I suppose. It should be the end, but it usually isn’t,” Rodriguez said. “People are relieved to a certain extent, but realize that there’s some more work to be done.”
Police hope Juarez and another subject taken into custody at the same time can provide information about gang activity in the county. If Juarez is convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison.