Dressed in a white doctor’s coat and clutching a diploma as he speaks to an audience of community leaders, Juan Pacheco does not fit the stereotype of someone who would fall prey to gang life.
Yet his descent into criminal activities is a cautionary tale for communities across Northern Virginia attempting to curtail the recent spate of gang violence that has suffused the region.
There are no simple solutions to Arlington’s gang problem, Pacheco said, and more pro-active police suppression will never work on its own. If county officials and Latino community leaders hope to prevent vulnerable teenagers from joining gangs, they will have to more effectively engage Arlington’s youth and not write those off who have a history of delinquency, Pacheco said.
“We as a community need adults to take responsibility to go out there and reach young people,” Pacheco told an audience of more than 50 people last week at a meeting of Leadership Arlington. “The idea that ‘if you build it they will come,’ no longer works. We need to invite them so they can make changes in their lives and their community.”
At the age of eight, Pacheco’s family emigrated from El Salvador to the Bailey’s Crossroads neighborhood. His parents were each working two jobs in order pay the rent, and making every sacrifice they could so that their children would have an abundance of opportunities in their new homeland.
The neighborhood was awash in gang activity, poverty and violence, as newly arrived immigrants struggled to find employment and acceptance in a country where many did not speak the language. “The destruction of human potential was all around us,” Pacheco said.
For a teenager grappling with identity issues in an alien culture, one where he felt powerless and distant from his classmates, the allure of the gang lifestyle was overwhelming.
“Nobody understood the struggles I went through,” Pacheco said. “No one sat me down and said ‘how can we make you feel at home,’ or ‘how can we help facilitate a smooth transition.”
Though he is reluctant to discuss his years in a local gang, Pacheco admits that he was arrested for three felonies. As his involvement in the gang deepened, his isolation from his parents and those around him grew as well.
Even when his best friend was gunned down outside a movie theater, Pacheco was unable to break free. He was still enamored by a life on the streets, and there was no strong adult presence to show him that there was still time to head in a different direction.
Pacheco had difficulty landing a job, as few employers were willing to take a chance on someone with a past like his.
“The worst thing that can happen to a young person is when he is ready to make that change, an adult puts it back in their face,” he said. “When they say ‘you’re a gang member and went to jail, I’m not going to give you a job.’”
Barrios Unidos, a community activist organization, took a leap of faith and gave Pacheco a position.
With a support structure in place, Pacheco thrived. He enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College, and is scheduled to graduate this spring from George Mason University. He hopes to attend medical school one day.
“You can’t wait for kids to change,” he said. “You have to go out there everyday.”
GANGS ARE NOT a new phenomenon in Arlington, with organized Vietnamese groups rising to prominence in pockets of the county during the 1980s. Latino gangs began to emerge around 1993, Det. Rick Rodriguez, who has spent much of his 17 years in the Arlington Police Department combating gang violence, told the members of Leadership Arlington.
Rodriguez estimates that there are between 250 and 300 core gang members in Arlington, with many more moving in and out of the groups.
In 2005 there were 200 gang-related criminal incidents, ranging from destruction of property to assaults.
In recent years, Arlington has escaped some of the more violent attacks that have plagued neighboring counties.
Though some of that is based on pure luck, it is also a tribute to increased police surveillance and better enforcement policies, said Robert Vilchez, the county’s gang task force coordinator.
More police officers are patrolling the streets and their presence has sent a message to gang members that violent behavior will not be tolerated in Arlington, Rodriguez said.
“I know gang members who say they don’t come to Arlington because [the police] know who they are and because we are everywhere,” Rodriguez said.
Young Latinos, such as Pacheco, often join gangs because their needs are not being met by their surrounding communities, and they are attempting to fill a void in their lives.
“Gangs are the effect of ineffective communities, families, churches and schools,” Pacheco said. “Young people will seek family if they don’t find it at home. They will seek recreation if they don’t feel welcomed at schools and traditional youth community centers.”
Pacheco believes that only 3 percent of gang members are hardcore advocates of violence, and incapable of abandoning the gang lifestyle. The key is to provide the other gang members with the mechanisms necessary to leave, he said.
This begins with greater involvement from community leaders and activists, and extends to educating parents on ways to keep their children away from gangs.
The police department regularly gives presentations to parents and administrators on the dangers of youth involvement in gangs, but Rodriguez said he would like to increase outreach efforts to parents, especially to those for whom English is a second language.
“Some parents don’t understand what’s going on in the streets,” Rodriguez said. “If no one is there to greet a kid after school and talk to him if he’s had a bad day, he may feel rejected.”
Pacheco urged those in attendance to seek new ways for their businesses and community organizations to become involved in the lives of Latino teenagers who are susceptible to the attraction of the gang lifestyle.
“We have to understand their lives and their struggles,” Pacheco said. “Let’s not give up on them.”