Saturday, 24 January 2004 00:04

Residents get lesson in gang practices

Written by  Brooke W. Stanley, Staff Writer, Gazette Newspapers
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When Neil Woodward, owner of an auto repair business in Olde Towne, got the small white invitation to a community meeting about gangs, he decided he needed to find out what it was all about.

"I didn't know we had a big gang problem," he explained.

Prior to the Jan. 14 meeting, Woodward said, he did not notice any activity in Olde Towne that appeared to be gang related.

But there are gangs in Gaithersburg -- seven, to be exact.

Police told a group of about 20 residents and business owners last week that, as the eyes and ears of the community, they play a critical role in combating the problem.

"We're not trying to scare people -- we're trying to bring it to reality," said Detective Patrick A. Word, who investigates gang activity for the Gaithersburg Police Department.

In a city of more than 56,000 people, about 150 gang members are responsible for about 20 percent of crime, Word said.

Last week's meeting was not in response to any recent rash of gang crime, but was simply designed to educate residents about signs that gangs are around, said Gaithersburg Police Sgt. Scott Scarff.

Jorge Ribas, president of the Western Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber called the meeting in light of recent robberies in Olde Towne.

"It's not a major problem, but we've had robberies of Hispanic businesses," Ribas said.

Gangs are comprised of three or more people, usually ranging in age from 11 to 40, who have common leadership or symbols and meet to commit crime together or are part of a continuing criminal enterprise.

They commit all kinds of crime including vandalism, break-ins, assault, robberies, rapes, domestic violence and murder, Word said.

Gangs frequently meet in parks and they often meet on Sundays because they know there are fewer police officers on the streets that day, Word said. Graffiti and tattoos can symbolize membership, and gangs typically have signature colors that they wear.

The largest Washington, D.C.-area gang is MS-13, or Mara Slavatrucha, which has a confirmed membership of 3,000, though police suspect the number is closer to 5,000, Word said.

MS-13's colors are blue and white, and their members often either wear blue bandanas or have them hanging out of their pockets, Word said. Popular MS-13 garb also includes sports jerseys with the number 13 on them.

MS-13 has been known to recruit members at elementary schools, he said. "The youngest gang member I've arrested was 9 years old," Word said.

Gangs have been identified in every Montgomery County public high school at one time or another, Word said.

Edilberto Oré, owner of an Olde Towne restaurant, told community members at the meeting that he knows first-hand how children can get sucked into gangs. His family immigrated here from South America, and he had to work from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at times to pay the bills, he said. His son had never gotten into trouble and he thought everything was fine.

"But it wasn't fine," Oré said.

In 1995, his son, then a junior in high school, had befriended some members of a local gang and went with them to a house one night thinking he was going to a party. Instead, Oré said Tuesday, the teens broke into a home, the alarm went off, and his son was the only one police caught. Oré had to pick his son up at the police station.

"For me, it was a shock, and my son started crying," he said.

After that, Oré was stricter with his son, often brought the teen to work with him, and then insisted he enter the military after high school. His son is now a successful business owner, Oré said.

But Oré knows the gang problem in the area has gotten worse, adding that he sees drug deals happening in front of his business.

With the help of slides and videos, Word showed gang hand signs, graffiti and clothing to residents at last week's meeting.

One of the most poignant parts of his presentation was a surveillance video police took of an MS-13 meeting in northern Virginia last year. In the video, two members were kicked and severely beaten as punishment for breaking gang rules. One man was punished, Word said, because he called police to report a slashed tire so he could make an insurance claim. It is against MS-13 rules to contact the police for any reason, he said.

Tomás and Teresa Arias, co-owners of Daytona Auto Care Inc. in Olde Towne and members of the Chamber, said they plan to do their part to alert police.

"We learned a lot ... we didn't know much about it," Tomás said.

He was most surprised to learn how many MS-13 members there are in the area. He sometimes sees customers with tattoos but did not realize they could be related to gangs.

Kids get drawn into gangs because of a need to belong; often members have little parental supervision. Many parents have to work two or three jobs each to make ends meet, Word said, and as a result are out of the house a lot.

Still other youngsters immigrate here and move in with a distant relative, and if they wind up not getting along with that person, they seek support elsewhere, Word said.

One major obstacle police face in combating gangs is the large amount of unreported crime.

"There are a lot of Hispanic people who don't trust the police still to this day," Word said, adding that many illegal immigrants fear deportation.

But finding out about these crimes is the goal, and there is almost no chance someone reporting a crime will get deported just because they called police, Word said.

Ribas said the Chamber would be kicking off a business watch, similar to a neighborhood watch, in Olde Towne next month.

"This is a good community, but we have to be prepared," he said.

To report non-emergency gang activity, residents should call the Montgomery County Police Department non-emergency line at 301-279-8000. For general inquiries about gangs or to report activity you may suspect is gang related, call the Gaithersburg Police Department at 301-258-6400. Police urge residents not to call 911 unless the situation is an emergency.

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