So far, gang activity in western Fairfax County hasn't reached the level seen in other parts of the county. But it's a grim reminder that, at any moment, it can hit close to home.
Last month, a 16-year-old reputed gang member in Alexandria lost four fingers of his hand — allegedly severed with a machete by a member of a rival gang. A few days later, a Herndon High freshman with alleged gang ties was shot and killed, and police believe his executioner belongs to the violent MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang.
So that makes a recent, gang-awareness seminar presented by Mary Hulse, Sully District Police Station's lead crime-prevention officer, and her assistant, Vincent DarConte, all the more timely. As it is, police have identified more than 100 gangs and 2,000-3,000 gang-associated people in Fairfax County.
And they're in the schools. "I don't think there's a middle or high school in the county that doesn't have a gang member in it," said Hulse. "I've even seen them in elementary school — all the way down into second grade. The brother of an MS-13 member already had tattoos on him."
Following a rise in gang activity here in the early 1990s, Fairfax County formed the first police Gang Unit in the Washington Metropolitan area. It began in 1994 with three men and now has nine officers and two supervisors. So if police have, for example, a robbery or malicious wounding that's gang-involved, said Hulse, "We'll turn it over to the gang unit."
In 2003, she said, there were 837 gang-related cases in the county — 78 of them in the schools. "In 2004, we've surpassed both these numbers already," said Hulse. "But we don't know if it's because we're tracking things better or if there's been an increase."
She said police keep a running data base of everyone identified as a gang member, "but the numbers fluctuate from month to month because they keep changing locations." Added DarConte: "There are 50-85 gangs operating in the county at any given point because they're mobile and move from east to west."
SOMETIMES, HE SAID, members break off from larger groups and form subgroups called cliques. But recently, said DarConte, "MS-13 engulfed the smaller cliques back in — so sometimes they disappear." Other times, he said, gangs are quite visible: "Last year at Bull Run Regional Park, an officer stumbled on 50-100 gang members having a meeting there and was able to call for help to confront them."
"A lot of gang members arm themselves," said Hulse. "When we pat them down, it's rare that we don't find a weapon. The weapons we seize most often are knives and machetes, [followed by] bats, sticks and other types of pipes, because they're more readily available to them and cheaper to get."
Police say kids are drawn to gangs for reasons including the promise of status, money, drugs and sex. Others like the adrenaline rush they get, for instance, said Hulse, "running from the police in stolen vehicles." Still others see it as their family — often in cases where both parents work and don't see their children much.
"This is especially true with struggling immigrant families working several jobs," said Hulse. "The kids are looking for attention." But gangs attract members from all ethnic and economic groups, including wealthy families, said DarConte. "Success comes with a price," he said. "With parents always working, kids turn to gangs for a sense of belonging."
But they're in it for life. "The philosophy is, once a gang member, always a gang member," he said. "The only way out of it is to die." Intervention programs exist, added Hulse, "if we reach them in time. But once they've been jumped into a gang, it's very difficult to get them out of it."
New members are initiated in two ways — "beaten in or sexed in," said DarConte. "A guy will be beat up by 25 guys; a girl will have sex with 25 guys."
Revenge and respect are big parts of gang mentality and, for the most part, say police, gang members don't care what happens to them. "If they've got to die, then that's what they do for the gang," said Hulse.
"They do what they're told to do by the gang," said DarConte. "Or they're punished severely by them," added Hulse. "If they get hurt or killed while doing a crime for the gang, then they die with honor. We've had some vicious assaults out here, and females are just as involved as males."
SHE SAID MS-13 is the largest gang in Northern Virginia, but it has many cliques that fight among themselves. Said DarConte: "MS-13 is probably the most hated gang, among gangs, because they're very violent and they don't like people." Hulse said it has "at least 1,500 members — mainly Latino" — in Fairfax County and actively recruits here.
MS-13 is aligned with the legendary gang, the Crips, said DarConte, and its colors are Navy blue and white. In general, a lot of gang members go by nicknames and, he said, "Some gang members don't ever know each other's first names."
During their seminar, held at the Sully District Police Station, Hulse and DarConte advised parents what to look for if they suspect their child may be involved with a gang. "If your child has a phone or address book full of nicknames, chances are, they're a gang member or are hanging out with gang members," said Hulse. "Can they give you the last names of the people that they're associating with?"
Tattoos also illustrate gang affiliation and may be in conspicuous or inconspicuous locations. Said DarConte: "They're usually black, very simple, and are the name of the gang or the person's nickname."
And often, said Hulse, "Gang members will wear big crucifixes or stars of David — or rosary beads with their gang colors. Some adopt religious symbols as part of their own symbols because, then, you can wear them in school and can't be asked to remove them.
A change in dress or a refusal to wear a certain color clothing (because it's a rival gang's color) may also signal gang involvement. Or a teen might dress the same, all the time, or on specific days of the week, such as red every Thursday or when he or she goes out at night. According to police, they may be on their way to regular, gang meetings. Or they may wear bandannas or wear one pant leg up and one pant leg down.
HAND SIGNALS thrown between gang members are another indicator, as are gang drawings or graffiti on school books, notebooks, homework — or even bedroom walls, closets or desks. Said Hulse: "They'll carve gang symbols into the walls and furniture."
When a mother asked what parents could do to keep their elementary or middle-school child from joining a gang, DarConte replied, "Stay involved with your children. Do things with them, such as sports or Scouting."
"What if your child feels intimidated?" asked another mom. "That needs to be reported," said Hulse. "Principals don't always like bringing police into an elementary school but, sometimes, that's the only way to nip it in the bud. And if you see stuff pop up in your neighborhoods, please let us know, because that's how we track the gangs in Fairfax County."
Last July, she said, someone painted MS-13 graffiti on a 6-foot wall at the Chantilly Regional Library, so "the potential is here. We've seen MS-13 graffiti in a park off Route 50. But we haven't had any major gang incidents in this area." Added DarConte: "Gang members may live here, but they do their business somewhere else."