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Community Confronts Street Gangs

Reston officials say growing gang problem can be solved through law enforcement, education and understanding.

The potentially violent gang argument at South Lakes High School late last month could have been worse.

Classes had just let out for the afternoon and members of two rival street gangs were on the verge of brawling.

A phalanx of police officers rushed to the scene and defused the situation before it escalated, arresting 23-year-old Pedro Perez-Vazquez, who, police said, had facilitated the gang fight and was armed with a concealed knife.

The Nov. 23 incident sheds light on what is considered a growing and challenging problem for Reston — the rise of violent street gangs among the community's poor and immigrant populations.

"Gangs are truly a problem for Reston," said Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill). "The incidents can be so grotesque and so violent."

Hudgins is one of an increasingly vocal group of Reston activists, educators and elected officials who believe the community needs to do more to balance efforts that discourage at-risk young people from joining gangs, while simultaneously cracking down on violent offenders.

"A lot has happened on the enforcement side, but we need to do a lot more on the prevention piece," Hudgins said.

STREET GANGS have operated in Reston for more than a decade, but gang-related incidents have become more frequent and more violent in recent years.

Three years ago, MS-13 members beat to death Fredy Reyes-Castillo, 22, at Brown's Chapel Park. Reyes-Castillo, it was believed, had pretended to be a member of the El Salvadoran gang.

In 2002, a fight at South Lakes High School between rival gang members led to several expulsions.

And in August, a 25-year-old Reston construction worker was arrested for allegedly shooting to death a fellow member of MS-13 he believed was cooperating with federal investigators.

Law enforcement agencies estimate there are roughly 400 gangs throughout Northern Virginia, though MS-13 is responsible for more than 95 percent of all gang-related crime, including armed robberies, thefts, car thefts, drug dealing, rapes, shootings and assaults, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report obtained by the Connection.

With an estimated 30 individual cliques and 3,000 members, MS-13 is believed to be the largest gang in Northern Virginia and in Reston specifically. The Los Angeles-based gang is linked to more than half a dozen slayings throughout the region.

In Reston, other gangs are believed to include the South Side Locos, the Asian Gang Disciples, the Black Gang Disciples, 18th Street and the Hill Boys.

MUCH MONEY has been allocated by federal, state and county officials over the past two years to crack down on gang offenders.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th District) announced last month he had secured $2 million to supplement funding for the multi-jurisdictional Northern Virginia Gang Task Force. And Gov. Mark Warner (D) started expanding gang enforcement efforts across the state following an MS-13 murder in Herndon in May and a machete attack in Alexandria the previous week.

Yet not enough is being done to offer potential gang members with a viable alternative to gang life, said Sarah Larson, a community activist and Reston historian.

"The most effective thing you can do is have a place where kids can go regularly after school that they feel safe," she said.

Existing after-school programs fail to draw sufficient numbers of young Latino immigrants, Larson said. Latino children and teenagers in Reston are often unsupervised in the afternoon because many of their parents work two or three jobs.

More relevant, effective after-school programs are needed and may be on the way, said School Board Member Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill). Next year's school budget contains $1 million to expand after-school programs for middle school students.

"We need a positive alternative to gang life," Gibson said. "That's how we're going to get to the root of this problem."

GANGS HAVE been known to recruit children in Reston's elementary schools as early as fourth grade.

Impoverished recent immigrants, frequently from South and Central America, are most often targeted for recruitment. Gangs lure children with promises of excitement, along with a sense of belonging and money for food, rent and clothing.

"As long as you've got big economic disparities — when you've got an underclass of people, like we do in Reston — you're always going to have gangs," Larson said. "People are in gangs because the community is failing them."

Larson said Fairfax County needs to reach out more to the immigrant community, educating them about available services and alternatives to street gangs.

More community policing could also encourage the immigrant populations to cooperate with police and provide intelligence to prevent gang violence before it occurs, she added.

"After the fact — after an incident happens and someone gets hurt — is always too late," she said. "Every time the government comes down and just smushes a gang member, they lose their credibility in the community."

CAPT. MIKE VENCAK, commander of the Reston district police station, said the growing threat of street gangs in Reston has become a problem.

"Gangs are a concern to me," he said, speaking Thursday night before Reston Association's Board of Directors.

Police do not consider gangs to be the biggest threat facing Reston or in Fairfax County as a whole, said Sgt. Richard Perez, a police spokesman and former homicide detective.

"It's not the biggest problem, but it is a problem," he said, pointing out that far more citizens are killed by traffic accidents than by gang violence each year.

Perez said he worries the growing number of gang incidents is having a negative impact on people's perception of the Latino community.

"The majority of people I come across are just repulsed by the reputation and the stigma that comes from gangs," he said. "They certainly don't represent me or my community.