Prince William County is on the right track in its efforts to tackle increasing gang violence, a group of officials said at a forum last week in Manassas. Experts working from a variety of angles to decrease the prevalence of gangs in the county discussed trends, gave insight and explained their strategic plans at a Committee of 100 forum on Nov. 30.
A police sergeant explained why the gang problem has escalated regionally and a therapist talked about the underlying mental health issues behind why children join gangs. A prosecutor detailed the legal obstacles in convicting gang members and a gang-intervention team member discussed the county’s prevention strategies.
“Much like the rest of the state and the nation, Prince William County is experiencing a rise in gang-related violence,” said Prince William Police 1st Sgt. C. Carter, who serves in the department’s gang unit. Carter said the increase in gang numbers is due in part to the influx of unaccompanied migrant children into the U.S. in recent years.
“According to the FBI, there are approximately 320 unaccompanied children migrating to Virginia each year,” Carter said, adding they are vulnerable to becoming victims of crimes or targets of gang recruitment .Because gang members know the children’s home language and their culture, they are able to connect with them and offer a sense of belonging, protection and family.
“Gangs prey on vulnerability,” said Deepa Patel, executive director of Trauma and Hope, a regional mental health agency. “People who come here from other countries, especially adolescents, want to belong.”
There are just over 900 known gang members in the county, Carter said, and of those, about 329 belong to MS-13. Of all the street gangs in Prince William, Carter said MS-13 is the biggest problem and commits the “most vicious homicides.”
The origins of MS-13 begin in Los Angeles in the 1980s. A decade later, the federal government ramped up deportation efforts, and as a result, thousands of undocumented people convicted of crimes in the U.S. were sent back to Central America.Many MS-13 members were sent to El Salvador, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Bradley Marshall said, and the country became an “incubator” for the criminal street gang.
In recent years, the gang has expanded back into the U.S.Patel argued the history of MS-13 exhibits why deportation can’t be the only solution to ending gang violence.
Prince William Police received grant funding in April and created a new strategic plan to combat gang violence.The effort has involved increasing street operations, forming a task force, making more contacts within the gangs and educating the community.Carter said the plan is to have a minimum of three large-scale street operations a month in targeted locations all over the county. The sergeant said the department has made 41 arrests and over 1,000 gang contacts since April.