The number of gangs in Loudoun County rose from 12 last year to 18 this year, local experts say. The numbers fluctuate, though. Some gangs move out while others surface.
The FBI met with the Board of Supervisors, the School Board chairman and law enforcement officials in executive session Tuesday to discuss the gang problems in Loudoun. After the closed session, Sheriff Steve Simpson said the MS 13 gang has committed the majority of gang-related crime in Loudoun County. "That seems to be our most active and vocal group here."
About 300 people belong the various gangs, and most are minorities, he said. "We've identified them through our intelligence, through people who have been arrested, people with tattoos or people who have admitted to being involved with MS 13 or some other group like that," he said.
To keep the region safe, law enforcement agencies, gang units and groups focused on youth are taking an active stance against drugs and gangs. They say the two go hand-in-hand.
Dave Carver, coordinator of the Gang Response and Intervention Team (G.R.I.T.), told a dozen parents last week that GRIT has succeeded in pushing some gangs outside the county limits.
Gang activity is a greater problem in neighboring Herndon and Fairfax, he said. Former Herndon High School students, however, have moved to Loudoun, generating more interest in forming gangs.
"You'll see heavy recruitment in the middle schools," said Carver, who was on a panel sponsored by the Supporting Eastern Loudoun Families (SELF). The SELF coalition is a community group formed to reduce youth substance abuse.
Carver cited an example of gang recruitment at Dominion High School last year. The target was a few Seneca Ridge Middle School students who were hanging around the high school. Dominion Principal John Brewer said middle school students are released earlier than high school students, and these students' siblings were at Dominion.
Brewer said he sends the younger students home. "There is definitely an effort to make sure that we don't create a situation where we are allowing gang involvement to grow right in front of our nose," he said.
Carver said authorities dealt with the problem and stopped it.
SIMPSON SAID there has been an increase in younger people getting involved in more violent crimes. "This is one of the things that come along with growth," he said, referring to the county's rapid rate of development. "We're fortunate at this point that it's not a huge problem. That's why we want to get aggressive with it early, instead of playing catch up later."
In 2003, gangs were involved in at least 34 crimes in the county, he said. The figure does not reflect activity in Leesburg. Confirmed gang activity was associated with robbery (1), malicious wounding (1), burglary (1), larceny (1), auto theft (2), assault (2), weapons (2), sexual assault (1), drug offenses (5), disorderly conduct (2) and graffiti/vandalism (16).
Scott Mastandrea, a member of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, said some teens are forming their own gangs for protection against others. "MS 13 has stirred the bee hive," he said, referring to one of the more dangerous area gangs. "Violence is a big part of the gang lifestyle. They operate in an environment of fear. Unfortunately, the gang with the most money carries the most fear."
THE FBI RECENTLY attributed 95 percent of all the gang-related crimes in Fairfax County to MS13, said Kraig Troxell, public information office for the sheriff's office. The FBI estimated MS13 has 30 gangs and 3,000 members in the area.
Reports of gangs cutting off a teenager's hands and shooting a young man in Fairfax County have heightened Loudoun resident's fears. Authorities also arrested a suspected gang member, Fredy Portillo-Miranda, 31, of Sterling two weeks ago in Loudoun, charging him with knifing a father and son. The charges stem from an April 11 incident involving a suspected gang that attacked a 50-year-old Sterling man and his wife when they tried to help their son who was being assaulted.
Troxell said the regional gang task force netted 65 felony arrests and 137 misdemeanor arrests in its first six months. The force is 18 months old. It also seized 46 weapons, 208 grams of cocaine, 31 grams of heroin and 20 grams of marijuana.
Mastandrea said members of the task force work one-on-one with teens that have just joined a gang. "We try to do our own intervention, lead them from that lifestyle," he said. "The key is identification. We can't get the gangs off the street until we identify them.
"It's good to see the county address the problem. Some people are afraid to say the 'G' word."
Carver said curbing gang activity will keep Loudoun safe. "I want to stress we have an issue we need to deal with, but Loudoun County is still a very safe place to live," he said. "By being proactive, by having the sheriff's gang unit and the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, it continues to be a good place to live."