Alexandria's gang population is small compared to many other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, with an estimated 150 to 200 members citywide. That's exactly the way elected leaders and law enforcement want to keep it. If they can’t eradicate it all together.
Last Saturday morning George Washington Middle School's auditorium was overflowing with city and school officials, local leaders, interested citizens, parents, students and even former gang members intent on preventing the spread of gangs within the city. They had come to support and participate in Alexandria's first "Gang Awareness Summit."
"There needs to be more done. We need to concentrate more on education and intervention rather than on suppression," said Juan Pacheco, a leader in Barrios Unidos/United Neighborhoods, an organization with a mission to offer viable alternatives to gang membership.
Pacheco knows of what he speaks. "I was first exposed to a gang at age 11. I joined a gang at age 14," he stated. "What changed my life were people who cared about me. People who looked at me and saw my potential. They didn't view me as a threat."
Now a resident of Falls Church, Pacheco works in Alexandria and other jurisdictions to discourage young people from falling prey to the emotional elixir of gang membership. "I try to keep young people out of gangs through a lot of education and intervention," he said.
Organized under the aegis of Alexandria's Gang Prevention Community Task Force, the four-hour summit kicked off with remarks from Mayor William D. Euille followed by councilmen Ludwig P. Gaines and Rob Krupicka, who serve as Task Force co-chairs.
They were followed by presentations from Detective Victor Ignacio, Alexandria Police Department, who gave an overview of "Gang Awareness," and Mike Mackey, Alexandria Gang Prevention Coordinator, speaking on "Gang Prevention/Intervention."
Established by City Council in December 2004, the Task Force includes representatives from the Alexandria Public School System, private schools throughout the city, Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee, Alexandria Branch NAACP, Alexandria Youth Council, Alexandria Interfaith Council, Alexandria Police Department, the Court Services Unit, Commonwealth Attorney's Office, City Manager's Office, the Hispanic business community and two citizens at large.
"We have identified three organized gangs and four neighborhood crews operating within the city," Gaines said. "For a lot of youth these gangs offer some type of structure to their lives. Gangs and crews provide a pseudo-family component."
"What this Summit is all about is preventing outside gangs from coming into the city to recruit members," he said. Gaines identified the three organized gangs in the city as MS 13, Latin Homies, and Southside Locos. The four crews are Del Ray Crew, C Mob, Eastside Crew and Westside Crew.
"The turn out to the Summit is a prime example of why Alexandria is such a great city. There are over three hundred people here. It's a community coming together to make sure these kids have a good future," Krupicka said.
COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY Randolph Sengel pointed out that his office is one of five across Northern Virginia that formed a gang task force to prosecute gangs that engage in criminal activities. "In Alexandria there has been a consistently pretty low level of gang activity and we want to keep it that way," he said.
"Presently, gangs seem to be migrating more into the suburban areas. Our task force is designed to share intelligence and methodologies in order to help each other with various cases. Area police also have a multi-jurisdictional gang task force," Sengel explained.
"You have to stay on top of this issue constantly. One day there are no gangs in an area and before you know it they are here. That's why we need our community task force and activities like this Summit," said Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper.
In opening the morning session, Euille told the crowd, "An event like this doesn't just happen. The entire community has been involved. Gang prevention is important no matter where anyone lives. My heart is warmed to see how many of you have come to this important event."
He further emphasized, "We are talking about gangs here because we want to prevent them in our city. Alexandria is about families. We are determined to make and keep our city safe."
Gaines noted that in 2002 he had shared an idea with Euille to form a task force to prevent gangs from gaining a foothold in Alexandria and to discourage anti-social behavior. "This summit is the culmination of that suggestion," he told the audience.
"This summit is necessary to shape policy and help us. We need to know what you see and experience everyday in the community, in the schools and in your neighborhoods. This is a way to help us better coordinate city services," Gaines said.
"Alexandria has one of the best gang prevention police efforts in the entire Northern Virginia region," Krupicka said. In spelling out the details of that effort, Detective Ignacio, outlined the myriad activities undertaken by Alexandria's Police Department in both the areas of intervention and suppression.
Following the general session the crowd broke down into more than 20 separate sessions to discuss in-depth a variety of subjects and formulate suggestions to deal with gangs and their prevention. Topics covered included: the genesis of gangs, who is vulnerable to gang affiliation, how to spot gang members, common gang activities, how to discourage and prevent gang membership, community involvement activities and gang intervention and suppression.
However, in the final analysis it all boiled down to a statement by Pacheco. "Everybody loves peace. But are you going to be a peace maker?" he asked.
To encourage that his organization is sponsoring a Regional Youth Peace Summit at George Mason University July 28 to 30. The announcement flyer emphasizes, "Our Young people are part of the solution."
In explaining why the peace summit is important, it states, "Our visions of safer and stronger communities can only be realized by leaders who are not afraid to face today's challenges prudently and in a timely manner."
That summation was evident last Saturday at George Washington Middle School — 300 plus times over.