There is at least one gang member in every school in Fairfax County, police officers told a stunned audience in Great Falls Tuesday night. Students are often exposed to gang members by the time they reach middle school, making elementary schools the optimum time to teach children that joining a gang is not a good idea.
Members of the Fairfax County Police Department’s Gang Investigation Unit spoke at a meeting of the Great Falls Citizens Association, discussing gang activity and graffiti, in response to an increase of graffiti along Route 7.
“We are not exempt from gangs,” said FCPD Capt. Michael Vencak. “When you look at why kids are likely to join gangs, it’s to fill a need for something they don’t have at home.”
When asked why residents of Great Falls never hear of gang activity in their community, Vencak told those at the meeting there might not be incidents occurring at schools, but the members are there.
“All schools in Fairfax County have at least one gang member,” he said.
There are more than 400 gangs in Northern Virginia, said Officer Jeff Pengelly, a member of the county’s gang unit. Over 100 gangs have been identified in Fairfax County, with between 2,000 and 3,000 members total in the area. In 2003, there were 837 gang-related, criminal cases, he said.
The gang unit was created in 1993 as a temporary, three-officer unit, but it is now a permanent, 14-officer patrol within the Fairfax County Police Department, Vencak said.
A gang is defined as three or more people that hang out in a group in a particular area, wearing the same sort of clothing or colors, Pengelly said.
“We’re not seeing big drug gangs here like out West, but we’re still seeing murders, homicides, rapes, robberies, felonies, misdemeanors and drive-by shootings,” he said during his presentation.
Most common in this area are gangs made up of Hispanic members, usually of El Salvadoran or other Central American descent, Pengelly said. Gangs made up of Asian or African-American teenagers also can be found in Fairfax County, he said.
THE STRONGEST AND most common gang in the area is known as MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a member of which is currently on trial for the Aug. 11 killing of another member in Prince William County. The member was killed on the suspicion of having a gang leader deported so he could get “promoted” to a higher rank within MS-13.
“There are 22 different cliques of MS-13 in the area,” Pengelly said.
A gang called Southside Logos “is the most rapidly growing gang against MS-13,” he said.
“Gang members and gang violence are still new to the area, and a lot of times they’re getting their orders from leaders out on the West Coast,” Pengelly said.
THE 10TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT TASK FORCE has been created to follow and prosecute gangs or members that migrate from Virginia into Washington, D.C., or Maryland, or from one area to another within the region, he said, because otherwise the gang members would be free from prosecution from within the area a crime was committed.
“The federal task force can go anywhere,” he said. “They also receive more funding, because they’re federal, from the government.” Currently, police departments in Fairfax County, Herndon, Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County, among others, are working with the task force on gang crimes.
There are two major forms of communication among gang members: hand signals and graffiti, he said.
“The hand signals they use, in most cases, are things people do every day without thinking, but they can mean things to different gang members,” Pengelly said. “Graffiti is used to mark territory, to call out threats, to show alliances.”
Another form of graffiti not usually associated with gangs is “tagging,” which is “more artistic and colorful,” he said. This is the kind most commonly found on the sides of buildings, depicting scenes or featuring the name of the artist in bold, bright, almost indistinguishable lettering.
During the presentation, Pengelly displayed several photographs of gang members posing with various hand signals, and also different types of graffiti, depicting gang rivalries, threats or memorials to fallen members.
“If a cross is painted in memory of someone and it goes down to the ground, that person’s dead,” Pengelly said. “If the cross stops above the ground, or there’s a line through it, that’s usually a threat against that person’s life, a warning.”
Tattoos are another way members show whom they belong with or a way to honor fallen members, he said.
“The tattoo of three dots in a triangle is the most common gang tattoo,” he said. The three dots are symbolic of the phrase “Mi Vida Loca,” or “My Crazy Life.”
Teardrop tattoos are common for those who mourn a fallen member, he said. “It’s a way of remembering them and saying they’re still crying for them,” Pengelly said.
Asian gang members are more secretive with their tattoos, usually placing their ornate, detailed tattoos in places concealed by clothing, like on their leg or back, he said.
Weapons of choice for gang members in Fairfax County are most likely knives or machetes, due to the strict gun laws in Virginia, but that doesn’t prevent some gun violence from happening across state lines, he said.
THE PURPOSE OF the presentation Tuesday night was not to scare residents or cause them to suspect that people wearing certain colors or using certain hand gestures are members of a gang.
“Teenagers are indestructible. They don’t worry about things like death,” Vencak said. “Not that they should think about death, but if they come home from school and talk about this kind of stuff, we want you to know what to listen for,” he said.
“The world has changed dramatically since we were young,” he said. “People used to have big front porches on their houses, and the porches got smaller. Now people have decks on the backs of their houses. We don’t interact with our neighbors anymore.”
Residents of Fairfax County might not believe there’s a large gang population because most of the gang violence is between two rival gangs, he said. “The violence is isolated in certain locations,” he said.
GFCA president David Olin said the officers were invited to the monthly meeting because of a recent increase in graffiti along Seneca Road and Route 7 over the past year.
“It’s happening more often, and we’re getting more inquiries about it,” Olin said. “We’re here to act as a conduit of information to the residents. We can’t act on any information, but we can get the police out here to give information.”
The graffiti that has been reported “looks more like tagging” than gang-related, he said.
“I got the impression that the people who attended this meeting felt a bit of relief” to hear about the differences in graffiti, Olin said.
A student group called TAG, or Teenagers Against Graffiti, has been formed in local high schools and middle schools, said member Erin Lennon.
“Our goal is to paint over graffiti on personal property in conjunction with the Reston District Police Department,” she said. “We’ve received several offers for money and paint donations. If you tell us what you need, we can help you out,” she said.
VENCAK SAID THAT he’s asked the students to screen the offers for their own safety, to prevent them from getting hurt by anyone that might retaliate against them for covering up the graffiti.
“Small projects are great. These kids got this group together to do something about the problem of graffiti,” he said.
Dick Santos and his stepson, Kane Kanagawa, a member of TAG, were at the meeting, but Kanagawa was asked to leave before the gang presentation started because he was under 18. Pengelly said it was the gang unit’s policy to give the presentation only to adults over that age.
“I wish we could’ve included more people like Kane,” Santos said. Overall, he was impressed and reassured by the information.
“It’s amazing the work they’re doing,” he said of the gang unit. “The way I feel, we residents should help out. How are the cops going to be able to do their job if we don’t help them,” by looking for certain patterns or calling in suspicious activity, he said.
To report suspicious activity, strange vehicles or anything that makes a resident feel uncomfortable, Vencak told those at the meeting to send an e-mail to him personally at email@example.com, or to the general police e-mail address of firstname.lastname@example.org. If more immediate action is requested, or to report a non-emergency, the phone number is 703-691-2131 or 703-478-0904 for the Reston District dispatch.