Fairfax County is home to an estimated 1,500 gang members who are responsible for more than 1,200 gang-related crimes in 2005. While these street gangs— most notably MS-13— committed only 10 percent of all violent crimes in the county, they have been behind high-profile murders, machete attacks, drug deals and armed robberies.
"Last year [Fairfax County's] crime rate declined by 3.2 percent, dropping to a 32-year low," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D). "One of the few clouds on that otherwise bright horizon is the rise of gang activity in the region. Gangs challenge the county's fundamental mission to keep every neighborhood and community safe."
Yet Connolly was one of 11 officials Friday who told the U.S. House Government Reform Committee that anti-gang efforts in Northern Virginia appear to be working.
"The word is out among gang members: Don't do it in Northern Virginia, don't do it in Fairfax County— that's the word on the street," said Robert Bermingham, the county's gang-prevention coordinator.
A survey of 13,235 Fairfax County students last December indicated that gang participation is on the decline in Fairfax County. According to the survey, only 2.8 percent of respondents said they had ever been in a gang. Four years earlier, 5.6 percent of Fairfax County students reported they had participated in a gang.
Testifying before the House committee, as well as U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) and U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), Connolly outlined a long list of Fairfax County's efforts to curtail gang violence and membership. These efforts, he said, involve increased law enforcement, diversionary programs— like after-school activities— and programs aimed at helping gang members quit their violent lifestyle— such as tattoo removal programs.
DESPITE Northern Virginia's apparent anti-gang successes, numerous challenges lie ahead, the officials said.
"We cannot and will not surrender our streets to the violence of turf and retribution— a cycle of violence that too often claims not only those engaged in this warfare, but the lives of innocent victims as well," said U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11), the committee's chair.
While it appears some gang members are leaving Northern Virginia, they seem to be taking root in places like Washington, D.C., and Maryland, said law-enforcement officials and congressional representatives.
"We can't just brush this problem away to another jurisdiction," said U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.). "The gang problem is getting more serious and deadly."
On July 1, three young men were killed and a fourth was wounded in a Prince George's County, Md., shooting by MS-13 members. In D.C., police have identified at least 75 active members of MS-13, mostly in the Adams Morgan area, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
"Crime is contagious," she said. "It respects no borders and goes from Northern Virginia to wherever it can find common ground."
Since 2000, Latino street gang activity— specifically MS-13, by far the largest and most violent— has centered on Los Angeles, El Salvador and Northern Virginia, according to Diego Rodriguez, an assistant special agent in charge with the FBI's Washington Field Office.
"Today, gangs are more violent, more organized and more widespread than ever before," said Rodriguez, who estimated that there are 800,000 gang members in the United States. "They pose one of the greatest threats to the safety and security of all Americans."
As tough anti-gang laws and expanded alternative programs push gang members out of Northern Virginia and into Maryland and D.C., law-enforcement agencies must do a better job of intelligence sharing, several of the officials said.
"We need to approach this more on a regional basis," said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We need to make sure that we work with dispatch and that we take nothing for granted. We need to work harder."
MORAN said the region needs to put a greater emphasis on preventing at-risk youth from joining gangs. Too often, he said, elected officials want to "crack down" by imprisoning or deporting gang members. The result, he said, is that the gang members typically only become more hardened criminals.
"Our greatest impediment is that too much of our efforts have really been imbalanced," Moran said. "We must focus on prevention."
In a veiled slap at Virginia Del. David Albo (R-42), who was sitting before him, Moran said that some lawmakers are eager to pass get-tough-on-gangs legislation while cutting social services that might more effectively dissuade them from joining a gang.
Last month, Albo carried a measure that killed a $6 million spending item to provide subsidized daycare for 1,900 poor children in Fairfax County.
"Some of the first ones who want to cut money out of daycare and elementary-school programs are the first one who want to get tough on the gang problem," said Moran.
Wolf, who has secured nearly $12 million to combat gangs, said government officials must continue to focus on curtailing violent gang activity in Northern Virginia and throughout the Washington, D.C.-metropolitan region. It will take a continued emphasis, Wolf said, on law enforcement, education and prevention.
"No one in this region should live in fear of gangs," he said. "Everyone— whether you've lived here for 50 years, 50 days or 50 seconds— no one should live in fear."