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NW gang concerns

MPD hit for ignoring illegal acts

(Published July 16, 2001)

By ANDREW BRODHEAD and MARY RECHICHAR

Staff Writers

Graffiti marks buildings and trash cans all over the alleys of Northwest Washington’s Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, where constant gang activity has residents and businesses upset about the lack of police attention to the problem.

When Narcissa Garcia came to the United States from Nicaragua 11 years ago to build a better life, leaving behind her family and everything else familiar, she expected the move to be difficult.

But she never expected her son to be stabbed to death by a gang member soon after coming to the United States to join her two years ago.

"I felt terrible – he was only 18 years old, very young," said the 40-year-old mother, who said she now worries that something similar may happen to her 3-year-old daughter someday.

Garcia’s son was one of many victims in the constant battle between Latino gangs and the residents who live in the Northwest Washington neighborhoods they claim as their turf.

Recent interviews with residents and merchants in Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan revealed deep concerns about frequent and often blatant gang-related crime occurring in those areas.

But repeated attempts to get Metropolitan Police Department officials to talk about the problems and what’s being done about them were unsuccessful. Some police officials in the Third and Fourth Police Districts, which include the city’s heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, claimed little or no knowledge of any gang activity in their areas.

"We do have a problem with Latino gangs," acknowledged one police officer who patrols the neighborhoods but asked that his name not be used.

Nelson Canales, a manager at Mount Pleasant Pharmacy located at 3169 Mount Pleasant St. NW, said that MPD officers know what’s going on with Latino gangs in the Mount Pleasant-Columbia Heights area but they do nothing.

"Gangs hang out outside of schools, cops drive by and do nothing," he said. "They should tell them to go home or ask what they’re doing."

The gangs are a particular problem to students and staff at Bell Multicultural Senior High School and Lincoln Middle School. Drugs are heavily trafficked on the school grounds, making it difficult for students to avoid them.

"The police come around a lot," said Awilda Hernandez, assistant principal at Lincoln Middle School. "We have metal detectors and cameras set up, so if there is an incident, we can catch them."

The gang members are mostly high school students, but they recruit from the middle and elementary schools, Hernandez said.

Some neighborhood residents said that police make efforts to combat gang violence, but it doesn’t do much good.

"The police actively pursue the gangs," said Columbia Heights resident Ada Figueroa. "Police make arrests, but the gangs are back on the street in a week."

A lot of gang activity centers on drugs, Canales said. Obvious drug dealing can be seen at all times of day along the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Park Road NW, and at Park and Hiatt Place – one block away from Bell and Lincoln schools.

In the 1700 block of Park Road, dealers operate behind three rowhouses in a dead space with high grass, where they hide their drugs when they are being pursued.

"The gang broke down a 100-year-old iron fence to get into the area of their operation," said Denise Wiktar, chief of staff for Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham.

"Drugs are being dealt at all times of the day," she said. "In the early morning, heroin is dealt. In the afternoon it is crack and cocaine, and in the evening it is crack and marijuana that are being dealt. Unless you are carrying a lot of drugs, it is hard to get caught."

Garcia said she has seen drug transactions on the corner of 16th and Irving streets NW, a major intersection, right on the bench where she sat waiting for the bus as she spoke with a reporter.

"I see people here, I see them put the drugs in the other person’s hand," she said.

Wiktar said houses often are taken over for drug dealing bases by families when an elderly relative becomes ill and requires hospitalization or nursing home care. She said the family members then deal drugs out of the house only to people they know, so it makes it very difficult for the police to verify if there is selling at the home. Sometimes, the homes are even boarded up while activity continues inside, she said.

"Recently an elderly woman on Newton Street went to a nursing home, and almost immediately the home was boarded up," Wiktar said.

About a year ago, a guy was jumped right in front of Canales’ car, and left a big dent in the side. Canales explained that being "jumped" in gang terms means being beaten as an initiation into the gang. He said he has not been personally affected by Latino gang violence yet.

"Not me, but my car, yes," he said.

He described the gangs as being like a substitute family for their members, especially for Latino immigrants whose parents must work a lot and the kids are then left alone at home.

"They tell them, ‘Oh, we’ll love you,’" he said of how the gangs recruit new members.

He knows a 17-year-old who is in a gang and Canales told the boy’s mother to hug him, kiss him and tell him that she loves him.

"Love is the only answer for these kids," he said.

But for those who are brave enough to try to get out of a gang, they are met with serious consequences.

"If you want out, they beat you twice as much as they did when you joined," said Columbia Heights resident Mara Salatrucha. "They kick and punch you. It is difficult to get out because they threaten to do something to your family."

There are two types of gangs, Canales said. The high school kind where it’s just high school kids that hang out and get into trouble, and the organized gangs, similar to the Mafia, said Canales.

"They have a leader to follow and whatever he says they do or they get punished," Canales said.

Neil Trugman, a retired police officer who worked in the Metropolitan Police Department’s intelligence branch, said that Latino gangs are among the easiest gangs to monitor.

"They’re very textbook," he said. "Their graffiti, tattoos and markings are easy to identify."

Bragging about gang membership also apparently helps distinguish Latino gangs.

"Latino gang members are proud to say they belong to a gang," Trugman said.

He said that police are always monitoring gang activity – for example, tracking gang turf battles, which is made easy by the way they frequently cross out another gang’s markings as they "take over" an area.

Federal agencies also get involved in gang monitoring. The FBI helps identify Latino gangs when they cross-jurisdictional lines. D.C. police also work with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration because guns and drugs are so intrinsic to local gangs. Sometimes, D.C. police also get assistance from the U.S. Park Police and the Secret Service.

But it is the confrontations between gangs that create the most problems.

"Most Hispanic gangs affect other Hispanic gangs," said Trugman. "Drug activity is starting to blossom more than it used to."

Latino gang members generally "come from places where cops usually don’t treat people with a lot of respect. They come from a place where government officials are ruffians and people spend their life afraid they’ll beat you up and throw you in jail," Trugman said.

It is apparently this distrust of the police in their home countries that has led to much tension between immigrant gangs and local police, observers said.

Raul Archer is among those who are trying to talk with gang members about working out their problems in a non-confrontational way. Archer is an investigator for the Youth Gang Task Force, which works with D.C. police to try to get the gangs off the streets by introducing a neutral mediator and negotiations between rival gangs. Archer, a former gang member in his youth, has been negotiating with gangs for six years.

"Over the years I’ve earned their respect," he said. "I have been consistent with them whether it is getting them a job, going to college or legal aspects.

"People do not understand what gangs are about. If you take the time to understand what they are all about, if you overcome the factor of pushing them away and work with them, you will gain their respect."

Archer said his background as a former gang member helps him understand the problems surrounding these kids.

"Gangs are not necessarily the problem -- violence is," he said. "How do we as a community make sure there are adequate opportunities for people who want to get out?"

Standing in the middle of this Northwest Washington community where drugs are sometimes referred to as an epidemic is the Latin American Youth Center. The center serves as a "safe haven" for teenagers and young adults, providing them with activities and counseling to keep them away from criminal activity.

"During the time they [the youths] are with us, we know they are in a safe place and that there are no drugs and alcohol and drugs," said Sergio Luna, an employee of the Center Community Outreach at the Latin American Youth Center.

The center offers many activities designed to keep kids off the streets. These include photography and drawing classes and video camera classes. The center also has various sports programs as well as jobs for youths at the center.

The center also provides transitional living for new immigrants or youths who are having trouble at home. In cases where youths are unable to live at home, the center will allow them to live in a house for up to 18 months. This program has been effective in helping motivate teenagers to strive harder, official said, citing one teenager from the center who recently received his GED and plans to attend Montgomery College.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator