Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

A new, brutal gang culture strikes fear in the heart of Washington

Immigrant Latino gangs, including former Central American guerrillas, have flourished in the nation's capital and are expanding their operations


The urgent call crackled over the radio as the unmarked police car cruised down the street. Gunfire had been reported a few blocks away, precisely at the place where a gang-related killing had taken place the day before. Was this payback time?

Officer Carol Sullivan placed a flashing siren on the car roof and sped off to answer the call.

It was just another night on gang patrol. In the heart of Washington, 3km from the White House, Latino gangs are on the rise, ruling their neighborhoods through fear and the gun. They have brought the problems of gang-ridden cities such as Los Angeles to the heart of America's capital.

But as Sullivan and her partner, Officer Andre Marcucci, weave through the traffic and peer down dark alleys, they are diverted by another gang incident. A 15-year-old girl has been badly beaten at a school. When they arrive, she is lying on a classroom floor. She was attacked by female gang members. She already has a bullet wound in her leg, from being hit in a drive-by shooting a month ago.

It has been a summer of gang violence in Washington's Latino community. At least five people have been shot dead in the feuding.

Some of the attacks, including one in which a five-year-old girl was wounded, have occurred in daylight in suburbs just north of the capital's city center.

Last week, a shoot-out between gangs took place on one of the city's most prominent shopping avenues, Mount Pleasant Street. One man was killed and a bus driver injured as more than 15 shots were fired, sending shoppers and pedestrians diving for cover. The attacks have sent a wave of concern through the city's political elite, who usually ignore the poor, inner-city neighborhoods.

Latino gangs are a new phenomenon in Washington. They spring from the capital's growing immigrant population, which is replacing older black neighborhoods. But, unlike the casual "crews" that dominated crime in poor black areas, Latino gangs use extreme violence and are keen to expand their criminal operations. That leads to battles over turf, drugs and "street respect," with the gunfire echoing almost within earshot of Capitol Hill.

There are four main gangs -- Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, the Street Criminals, Vatos Locos and Mara R -- and many "sub-gangs" that have splintered from the main groups. MS-13, the largest gang, began life in the slums of El Salvador and is made up of ex-guerrilla fighters. It has a reputation for brutality and violence.

Gang graffiti covers the walls, pavements and road signs of many Latino areas. It marks out territory and can signal a shift in borders and allegiances. Police and community leaders follow it closely, tracking the movements of the gangs.

But the most valuable police work is done through contact with the gangs themselves. And that is where Marcucci comes in. The former US Marine has spent two years getting to know Latino gang members in Washington. He spends hours talking to them every day, sharing a drink or just sitting on their porches.

He walks a tightrope.

"I have to get to know them, but at the same time, they have to know that if they do something wrong it is going to be me coming after them," he said.

Driving through the streets of Columbia Heights, a Latino community riven by gang activity, Marcucci monitors the gang members on the streets. He waves and smiles as he drives by. They are easily spotted by the colors they wear -- a scarf or shirt that denotes which gang they belong to. He knows hundreds by name, and sometimes stops and talks to them in Spanish.

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