‘They’re Kids Who Don’t Understand’

Untangling Northern Virginia’s gang problem means recognizing it traces back to juvenile powers of judgment

Untangling Northern Virginia’s gang problem means recognizing it traces back to juvenile powers of judgment

By Lindsay Holst

On a warm night in Arlington in early June 2002, a teenage boy and girl were in the process of stealing a car. They’d each done it many times before, in different neighborhoods and in multiple states. They worked quickly, and would likely have gotten away—until the girl saw a baby seat in the backseat of the car. She wavered, insisting that they couldn’t steal this car, which clearly belonged to a family with a baby. Perhaps it was this moment’s hesitation that caused them to be apprehended by Arlington Police moments later. Or, perhaps it was the fact that they were just teenagers exhibiting the judgment of teenagers—they were, after all, just two blocks from the Arlington Courthouse and police station.

He was Denis Rivera, called “Conejo,” or “Rabbit,” a member of the gang Mara Salvatrucha—known as MS-13. He was wanted for multiple crimes, chief among them the murder of a rival gang member on Daingerfield Island, north of Old Town Alexandria, in September 2001. She was Brenda Paz, Rivera’s girlfriend, and had been “jumped into” MS-13 at the age of 13. In a gang whose power structure was contingent upon male dominance, Paz, nicknamed “Smiley,” had proved herself valuable to the gang early on, a teenager with a keen ability to memorize phone numbers, dates, names and quantities of money—details integral to gang operations. While Rivera would ultimately be convicted of murder charges and sentenced to life in prison, Paz would not prove to be so fortuned. A year and a half later, in July 2003, she would be found stabbed to death along the banks of the Shenandoah River, murdered for serving as an informant to law enforcement.

In exchange for providing information to detectives and police about multiple investigations of past robberies, shootings and stabbings, Paz had been offered a new name and admittance into the Witness Protection Program, but grew intensely lonely and bored, missing the solidarity that came with her former gang life. She left Witness Protection after only a few months and rejoined friends, only to have her body discovered shortly thereafter. To gang members, she would become a warning figure, a testament to the dangers of “snitching,” or cooperating with police; to the region, Paz would become a tragic figure emblematic of Northern Virginia’s suspected gang problem.

But at that moment in the early summer of 2002, Brenda Paz was just an unaccompanied minor, a 16-year-old Texas runaway who would soon realize she was sitting in jail for a string of atrocities she had witnessed but had not committed.

“The thing that makes acts of gang violence in this region particularly scary is the fact that the individuals committing them are typically just kids,” says Greg Hunter, an Arlington attorney who served as Paz’s court-appointed guardian. “They’re kids who don’t understand what life in prison means, or what killing someone means. They don’t understand the gravity of their actions. And they step up to the major leagues of crime very quickly.”

Paz was murdered at a time when Northern Virginia was gaining national recognition as a “hotbed” of gang activity—a brand that gang-suppression and prevention professionals are still trying to shake today. In 2003, following Paz’s murder and a string of violent stabbings, shootings and other crimes across Northern Virginia that would be attributed to gangs—MS-13 chief among them—area leaders helped secure funding through the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to create the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. A multijurisdictional effort that aims to align gang-suppression activities with education, intervention and prevention activities, the Task Force has been coordinating its efforts across multiple Northern Virginia communities for more than half a decade.

“We knew right off the bat that we would need a regional prevention program catered to communities’ needs,” says Lillian Brooks, director of the Alexandria Court Service Unit and chair of the steering board to which the Task Force reports. “Gangs don’t have borders—Brenda Paz, for example, bounced from Alexandria to Arlington to Fairfax, and so have many other gang members.”

The Task Force appointed Gang Prevention and Intervention coordinators in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Alexandria. Over the past five years, it has fleshed out multiple long-term mentoring programs that allow at-risk youth to “build trusting relationships with adults,” and participates in Intervention and Prevention programs through the Court Service Unit to help “connect kids to positive activities,” Brooks says. The various programs are designed to provide at-risk kids with options—activities include soccer, filmmaking and arts and crafts.

Mike Mackey, the Task Force’s Gang Prevention and Intervention coordinator for Alexandria, always begins his gang-prevention presentations the same: with a statistics quiz. He asks attending groups which percentage of crime in Northern Virginia they think can be attributed to street-gang violence: 45, 25 or 2.

The majority of the room almost always picks 45 percent, Mackey says, but the answer, according to The Northern Virginia Comprehensive Gang Assessment—undertaken by the Task Force from 2003-2008 as the first to examine gangs within a regional setting—is 2 percent.

“After we address that statistic, you immediately feel the pressure in the room go down,” Mackey says.

Mackey discusses various warning signs, addressing how members might be “pushed” into the gang lifestyle due to familial factors like financial instability, lack of education, drug and alcohol abuse, violence or involvement in the criminal justice system.

“A gang can provide a family-like relationship for teenagers who feel isolated and alienated—a lot of these kids are from Central America, and many of them have come over here having not seen their parents for many years,” Brooks says. “There is family disengagement, a whole new culture and language barriers—and they’re looking for a place to feel at home.”

The “pull” of gang membership, Mackey says, is a testament to the need for teachers to be hyper-vigilant about activities within school walls. “If I’m with you in the cafeteria, and I know you feel unconnected or have low self-esteem, I can approach you and tell you that if you join my gang, that kid you were having problems with isn’t going to bother you anymore,” Mackey says. “I can tell you that once you’re with us, you’ll have status, money, respect. Kids who don’t feel connected with other kids or positive adults can really be enticed pretty easily.”

A key point to remember, Hunter emphasizes, is that many gang members—Brenda Paz included—are “kids, first and foremost.”

“Brenda had the same powers of judgment that you probably had when you were 17,” he says. “The difference was, she wasn’t deciding who to go to prom with, or whether to try alcohol or to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time. She was wondering whether to go out on a murder or not. Whether to cooperate with authorities to put away killers, or to get killed by those killers. These are the kinds of decisions that gang-involved kids are making with the same flawed judgment of any other teenager.”

After half a decade of the Task Force’s phased strategies, “the landscape has changed dramatically,” says police Lt. Paul Cleveland, who heads up the Task Force’s Gang Suppression Unit. “They’ve gotten smart. They no longer wear the colors blatantly, and [gang-related] tattooing has become much more subdued. But make no mistake: They can send out the message any time they want. They are still fully capable of causing chaos.”

Cleveland says that while MS-13 is absolutely still Northern Virginia’s “500-pound elephant,” he no longer classifies the group as a street gang, but rather as a “criminal enterprise,” regularly conducting street-level crimes ranging from trafficking drugs to stealing cars and weapons.

“Basically, anything they can do to make a profit,” he says.

The Gang Suppression unit is comprised of 15 officers assigned to different jurisdictions. Day-to-day efforts include “street compression,” where officers will go to a problem location in a certain neighborhood and “more or less post a flag,” Cleveland says.

On a recent night, members of his unit went to an area club where gang members are known to show up on Wednesdays. “We’ll spend some time in the parking lot, and show them that we have a zero-tolerance policy. If they give us a reason to arrest them, we will.”

Cleveland’s gang unit relies on information garnered both from internal investigations and tips from the community—including reports of gang-related graffiti, or of suspected gang meetings in parks or neighborhoods.

“If you don’t continue to involve the community and continue your aggressive suppression and intervention efforts—if you rest on your laurels, they’ll proliferate like crazy,” Brooks says. “There is no relaxing.”

This article is the first in a three-part series addressing Northern Virginia’s gang issue. The next piece of the series will focus on first-person accounts of individuals formerly involved in local gangs.

(July 2010)

Part 2: “Sometimes you have to die”

Part 3: ““The beating up was the Easy Part””