When Juan Pacheco was a child, his parents made the decision to flee El Salvador and the civil war raging there for the United States, where they thought their son would have a better life. They gave up all their possessions, friends, culture, careers and even their language, and found themselves living in section-8 housing in Northern Virginia.
Even so, Pacheco was excelling in school. He had been identified for a full scholarship to George Mason University as part of a young scholars program in middle school, which is aimed at helping at-risk students make it to college.
The better life Pacheco's parents had wanted for their son seemed to be within reach. Instead, Pacheco chose to become a gang member.
"My parents made a sacrifice for me. When I came to this country, I was happy," Pacheco said. "But a lot of young people lose their sense of place, sense of belonging. I ended up living in a place of negativity. People do not join gangs for money, power or respect. They join for love, acceptance, nurturing and structure."
Because of his gang membership, Pacheco lost his scholarship, lost the respect of his parents and even lost his best friend who was shot and killed in Merrifield. He gained three felony convictions and five stints in jail.
"That is my record of self-stupidity," Pacheco said.
When he got out of jail, Pacheco decided to turn his life around. He was hired by Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United Inc., an after-school program in Herndon, and enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College. He earned a membership into Phi Theta Kappa honor society and is now studying at George Mason University to become a pediatrician.
"Our young people don't need fancy community centers. They need someone to give them love and opportunity," Pacheco said. "My first job was with Vecinos Unidos. And all the information in my head, I'm going to use it to help others."
MORE THAN 60 people packed the Herndon Council Chambers last week on Wednesday for an informational meeting on gangs, sponsored by the Herndon Crime Prevention Council. The meeting was punctuated by the surprise presentation by Pacheco, who came dressed in typical gang regalia and sat in the front row for most of the session. As he spoke, however, Pacheco peeled off the gang clothing piece by piece until he was left standing in a dress shirt, tie, doctor's lab coat and a stethoscope around his neck. His transformation drove home a point the earlier speakers were trying to make: You can't judge someone simply by how the person looks.
"Everybody who wears baggy clothing or bandanas is not in a gang," said Herndon Detective Claudio Saa, a member of the multi-jurisdictional 10th District Gang Task Force.
Saa said that under the law, a gang is three or more people who have come together, given themselves a name, symbol, color, style of dress and are involved in criminal activity. Common signs of gang activity, he said, are graffiti, which is used to mark the gang's territory, and so-called tagging, which is more "artsy" and elaborate than simple graffiti and is also used to mark territory or further the name of the gang. Saa said gangs have become such an important issue that certain crimes, such as assault, bodily wounding and damaging or tampering with property jump from misdemeanor offenses to felonies when done in the name of a gang.
He said parents concerned about their child’s change in behavior should look out for tattoos, which are usually the name of the gang. Saa said the tattoo can also indicate the person's place within the gang: The higher the placement of the tattoo on the body, the higher the person's status within the gang. He has seen some gang members with tattoos on their foreheads. However, he said, young members will place the tattoo somewhere it could be hidden from their parents' view, such as behind the ankle.
In addition, clothing and hand signs could be a sign of gang membership.
"I've seen a lot of kids mimicking what they see on TV without knowing what it means," Saa said. "Hand signs are a way for gang members to communicate with each other. Each gang has its own signs identified with it."
Saa said children mimicking those signs because they see them on television or in movies and music videos could be dangerous, because they don't always know if they are "flashing" a sign to real gang member and worse, flashing the sign of a rival gang.
HERNDON SENIOR SGT. Jeffrey Coulter said 5,000 to 6,000 gang members have been identified in Northern Virginia, belonging to one of as many as 400 different gangs, which can range from the national MS-13 to "a couple kids getting together at high school." So far, the task force has made 255 gang-related arrests, confiscated 12 firearms and 40 edged or blunt weapons, and seized 267 grams of cocaine, said Coulter.
"Every other weekend members of the task force find out where the gangs are meeting that weekend and try to disrupt them," Coulter said. "Sixteen meetings have been disturbed and we're finding they’re leaving the area to have their meetings."
Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers, who leads the task force, said the group is entering the next phase of its mission — education and prevention. The task force was created with grant funding in 1998 with three purposes: enforcement, education and prevention. Its members include Herndon, where the task force is headquartered, Fairfax County, Leesburg, Loudoun County, Manassas City, Manassas Park and the Virginia State Police.
"We haven't come up with a plan yet. We hope to start in September with the schools," Summers said. "The final phase, intervention, is for those already in gangs and already in the [judicial] system. We don't know what that will be yet. It's a work in progress."
John Werner, an assistant principal at Herndon High School, said the school has already taken steps to help keep students away from gang life by talking to the students, contacting parents when gang activity is suspected and seeking expulsions when gang activity is confirmed. The school also has a School Resource Officer, who is a Fairfax County police officer, on site daily. Werner said efforts are also being made at the middle-school level with after-school programs, and a monthly meeting with the Greater Herndon Community Coalition, made up of representatives of all the schools in the Herndon pyramid, to discuss a variety of issues facing the schools. There are also newsletters, workshops for parents and school staff members, and a program with Vecinos Unidos, where former gang members mentor students.
PACHECO SAID the key to keeping children from seeking membership into a gang is easy — providing opportunities.
"We can influence people to do good things or to do bad things," Pacheco said. "We have a group of people who can provide opportunities and chances. I'm not against the people in gangs. I'm against the self-negativity of the gangs. There are a lot of young people out there who could do good."
Summers cautioned neighbors that just because they see a group of teens hanging out, that does not mean they are members of a gang. He also stressed the importance of not stereotyping people. He said gang members are male and female, and come from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Both he and Pacheco said one of the way of combating the gangs is finding other things for the young people to expend their energy on, such as organizing neighborhood soccer or baseball games.
"It doesn't take money to find volunteers, maybe you have someone in your community who has experience working with kids," Summers said.
Neighbors were also encouraged the contact the police about suspected gang activity and to report graffiti.