The number of gang members in the Washington-area suburbs is uncertain, but officials are positive it is growing – with recruitment beginning as early as elementary school.
A triple homicide June 30 in Adelphi – in which witnesses heard gunmen yell “Mara Salvatrucha,“ which means Salvadoran gang – served as a reminder that the gang presence in the region remains strong.

‘‘I know it’s growing, there’s no doubt about that,” Jack Schreck, gangs liaison for the Prince George’s school system, said of the increase in gang members in the county. ‘‘It’s a number of things. It would be ... the influx of immigrants. We’re also seeing more of the West Coast influence coming east over the last year or two.”

In June 2004, county police estimated there were 400 gang members in Prince George’s. Schreck estimates there are more than 1,200 gang members in the county.

However, statistics varied among different gang experts.

Numbers are also high elsewhere in the region, with Montgomery County reporting 900 gang members, according to Sgt. Charles Welch of the Montgomery police gangs unit.

However, although the gang presence is rising, gang violence so far has only accounted for a fraction of the county's murders. There were two gang-related murders in 2003, one in 2004 and eight last year. Last year’s gang killings accounted for less than 5 percent of the 173 homicides in Prince George’s.

So far this year, the police are reporting three gang-related homicides, although they were not clear on whether the three were from the June 30 Adelphi murders that are still under investigation. No arrests have been made in that crime.

‘‘[Gangs] are not driving violent crime, and we have no intention of letting it get to that point,” said Sharon Taylor, spokeswoman for the Prince George’s Police Department. ‘‘What’s driving violent crime is guns and drugs.”

The most prolific gangs in the area are MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, and Vatos Locos, or “Crazy Guys.“ There is some activity in the region from the Bloods and Crips gangs that originated in California, but experts say some of the activity is just from individuals emulating those gangs, wearing their colors and referring to themselves by those names.

Prevention efforts

County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said gang recruitment is occurring in elementary and middle schools. Schreck agreed, stating that children as young as 7 are being targeted.

And so county officials and community leaders, alarmed by inroads gangs are making in suburban Maryland schools, are increasing prevention efforts.

‘‘The [gang] influence is so heavy because the peer pressure is just unbelievable that these young people are dealing with,” said Darius Stanton, the interim regional vice president for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington.

Stanton and his staff have promoted the club’s gang prevention program with county youth for two years. Prince George’s schools sponsor a gangs awareness symposium for faculty and staff. Crossroads Youth Opportunity Center, which offers mentoring services, therapy, job training and other programs, opened May 1 in Takoma Park. Also, more youth mentoring programs have been appearing regionally.

‘‘Children, they just want something to do,” said Stanton, who also works with the Boys and Girls Club out of Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School. He said the club has gone into schools to talk about gangs and offered recreational options such as soccer teams. The organization has also forged a partnership with the University of Maryland to provide the club with 45 tutors and mentors.

Fifteen-year-old Mariela Rodriguez agrees that being involved in the club is a much better option.

The junior at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville said the gang presence there is all around her, but she chose instead to join the Boys and Girls Club.

‘‘There’s all types of gangs in the school,” Rodriguez said, estimating there are at least five or six. When someone wants to join one, the individual meets them for initiation, she said. After the gang jumps the recruit – a process in which the recruit is beaten by gang members – initiation is over.

Role model approach

School officials are also trying to educate parents and teachers of the signs of gang activity.

Experts say parents and teachers should be on the lookout for bandanas, tattoos and changes in students’ clothing. Parents especially should keep close watch on who their children’s friends are.

Ivey praised new and growing mentoring programs as efforts that are sorely needed.

‘‘Really where we come up short ... is the intervention and prevention phase,” Ivey said. ‘‘Some gangs are actively recruiting at elementary and middle school ages. The earlier you start, the better, I think, from a prevention standpoint.”

County Executive Jack B. Johnson launched the Boyzz 2 Men mentoring program in April. It attracted nearly 2,000 young men who wanted to be mentored on the opening day.

‘‘That speaks volumes,” Stanton said of the program. ‘‘It just goes to show there are a lot of young men out there who really want to do the right thing.”