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One Sunday morning in the spring of 2002, Northwest D.C. resident Taalib-Din Uqdah awoke to find his Dodge minivan covered with graffiti. The lifetime D.C. resident and longtime activist immediately suspected it was the work of Latino gangs, whose markings had been pushing their way up 14th Street. Uqdah, 51, says his experience working on gang issues for D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly a decade ago led him to believe that the graffiti meant someone was sending a message or claiming territory. But not knowing whether it was a personal attack, Uqdah feared for the safety of his wife and young son. He called the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and asked for the phone number of its gang unit, but says the department could neither provide any information on a gang unit nor give him the name of an officer who knew how to interpret the tags. “It was bordering on ridiculous,” says Uqdah. Meanwhile, gang tags continued to spread rapidly throughout the city’s Northwest corridor. This summer the gang activity took a violent turn when four people were killed and four wounded in several shootings over nine days in the Columbia Heights and Adams-Morgan neighborhoods. Police say the shootings stemmed from a feud between four Latino gangs and that many of the victims were members. Last month, two of these same warring gangs staged an afternoon gun battle down the main commercial strip of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood — just three miles north of the White House. In that incident, one alleged gang member died and a city bus driver was shot in the shoulder. The violence appears to have caught some in the city by surprise. Police scrambled to put together a team of intelligence officers. D.C. officials hurried to find money to put toward anti-gang programs. Task forces were created. And community members began educating themselves on a cultural phenomenon that has continued to grow nationally and has had a foothold in the D.C. area for more than a decade. D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey says Latino gangs, having until recently remained relatively small and prone only to short flare-ups of violence, have not been a full-time job for his department. “It’s not that we didn’t have a gang problem,” Ramsey says. “It was just relatively quiet for a period of time.” Some city officials and residents are questioning why it has taken so long for the District to take Latino gangs seriously. “We are so far behind on the organization of this,” says D.C. Councilman Adrian Fenty, who represents several neighborhoods bordering Columbia Heights. “There has been no concentrated effort, no plans submitted to the D.C. Council about solving this matter.” “I didn’t know what a skip party was a year ago or what Street Thug Criminals were,” says Dominic Sale, chair of the Mount Pleasant Advisory Neighborhood Commission, referring to gang recruitment activity and one of the D.C. area’s known outfits. Sale says he was surprised to learn that some of the gangs in the District may have ties to armed forces in Central America. “These gangs are offshoots of paramilitary groups,” Sale says. “The police don’t have the resources or knowledge to deal with this.” D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, who represents the neighborhoods where the shootings took place, says the violence comes as no surprise. “We have been well-aware of a serious gang problem for several years,” Graham says. Graham takes issue with Chief Ramsey’s view that the Latino gangs had been laying low and not causing much of a problem. “It hadn’t been quiet for a long time,” Graham says. Before July, the Police Department had no unit — and just one intelligence officer — dedicated to Latino gangs. Ramsey says the current squad of 10 officers is in place for the “foreseeable future,” but no plans are under way to make it permanent. In the past, Ramsey says, teams of plainclothes officers would respond when gang violence erupted. Mostly, Ramsey says, his gang experts — part of the Narcotics and Special Investigations Unit — were focusing on drug dealing crews spread throughout the city. But Ramsey says his department did not ignore gang activity, nor was it caught off-guard, noting that his Latino Liaison Unit, based in Adams-Morgan, had officers who patrolled the area on foot. Ramsey says he is not aware of Uqdah’s complaint, but notes that police now photograph any new graffiti that goes up in that part of the city. 400 LOCAL MEMBERS At least eight Latino gangs have been operating in the District and have become a potent force in the heavily Salvadoran neighborhoods of Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. Officials are still trying to get a handle on how many members each gang has, but estimate that Latino gangs members in the city total around 400. Nationally, Latino gangs have increased their numbers over the past decade. For example, MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in the late 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants living in Los Angeles to protect themselves from other Hispanic gangs. Gang experts now say MS-13 membership is in the thousands and has reached into smaller cities or suburbs such as Omaha, Neb.; Raleigh, N.C.; and — closer to home — Fairfax, Va. Three alleged MS-13 members are currently on trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, accused of killing a government informant on federal land. MS-13 is also active in the District, although police claim that the group is not involved in the city’s latest string of violence. Recently, MS-13 has been accused of carrying out terrorist acts in Honduras where many of its members are U.S. deportees. In August, the gang was blamed for a killing rampage on three buses in San Pedro Sula that left 12 dead and 18 wounded, the Associated Press reported. Honduran officials speculated that the attack may have been in retaliation for harsh anti-gang laws recently implemented in that country. Those working on D.C. gang issues say the Latino gangs operating in the city are not believed to be linked up with gangs based in other jurisdictions bearing the same name. But there is concern that without proper action now, they will do so. “For the most part, they are local, but the door is open for broader national and international involvement,” says Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center, in the District. “My sense, until recently, was that we were pretty much dealing with local things, but that has been changing.” A HARD FIGHT Gang experts say there is no one law enforcement strategy that has proven effective in fighting gang violence. And some say it takes an enormous amount of resources just to make a dent. “The problem with gang crime nationally is that nobody wants to pay for it,” says Wesley McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association. “It takes a lot of witness protection funds, a lot of overtime, and a lot of training.” Federal cases against such gangs appear to be on the rise as some jurisdictions look to Congress for support. On Oct. 15, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would pump $700 million into funding gang enforcement and prevention programs across the country — $500 million for federal, state, and local law enforcement and $200 million for intervention efforts aimed at at-risk youth. The Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act of 2003 would make it a federal crime carrying 10 years in jail for people to recruit members for a criminal street gang. It also establishes a federal crime for some offenses — such as rape, kidnapping, murder, burglary, and carjacking — committed by three or more people working together. The legislation came one month after gang experts and prosecutors from across the country testified at a September hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the District, Mayor Anthony Williams has promised that $400,000 will be spent on anti-gang efforts. Last week, Councilman Fenty asked the city manager and U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard Jr. for an accounting of federal money earmarked for D.C. anti-gang efforts. Police and community members say they have made some headway. Ramsey and other police officials point out that they have identified all the shooters involved in the Latino gang murders and have arrested all but one of the suspects. “We’ve closed out every single case,” says Lt. Robert Contee, who heads the Latino gang intelligence unit. Prosecutor Howard says two senior assistant U.S. attorneys have been tapped to focus solely on Latino gang issues, and he plans to add two young Spanish-speaking prosecutors to the cause as well. In addition, some less-serious crimes — such as property destruction or simple assault — involving gang members will now get special treatment. “It’s a problem that we’re taking seriously, and the key to this thing is information,” Howard says. Since July, two groups have been formed to understand and confront the gang problem. One involves members of the D.C. Police Department; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This group is described as a coalition that has been meeting regularly to come up with possible law enforcement responses. The other, called the Gang Intervention Partnership, consists of Latino community leaders, police, school officials, and residents. This group meets weekly and has already implemented a series of plans aimed at mediating a truce between warring gangs and educating parents and students about the dangers of gangs. It remains unclear how long this group — assembled by Ramsey in August — will remain together. The police chief says he has extended its lifeline through the end of the year. On Nov. 6, the group hosted, according to Ramsey, a meeting at police headquarters with editors of The Washington Post and news directors from local television and radio stations in a plea to media outlets to refrain from publishing the gangs’ names unless absolutely necessary. The group also expressed concerns over photos and video of funerals and other occasions where gang members or their families may be present. The law enforcement officials explained that identifying gangs can have the unintended effect of acting as free publicity, enhancing gangs’ violent reputations in the community and among rival gangs. Another effort involved community leaders reaching out to gang members in the D.C. Jail to mediate a truce, according to Ramsey and Contee. Kaplan says a separate group of community leaders has made contact with kids in the Adams-Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods for that same reason. A third effort already undertaken involves education and visible prevention tactics. Some community members are meeting children as they leave school or are standing in the open in known gang areas in efforts to put gang members on notice that they are being watched and to prevent recruitment. Intervention tactics have also been discussed to deal with parents whose children are already in gangs. “The community cannot be expected to fix this,” Kaplan says. “Without a long-term collaboration between schools, the mayor’s office, and police, it’s not going to be fixed.” As for graffitti victim Uqdah, he says he eventually concluded that the attack wasn’t personal, cleaned his van, and let the matter drop.

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