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June 19, 2012

Gang Prevention Programs Target Children at Risk

by Jeff Swicord

ARLINGTON, Va. - Federal law enforcement officials say criminal gangs are on the rise, with more than 33,000 now operating across the country and committing more than 50 percent of all violent crime. But in one community outside Washington, gang activity is down.

The annual Arlington County Gang Task Force soccer tournament is one part of a broad strategy to steer teens away from gangs in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.  

“I believe that no county, no town, is immune from this gang problem.  And every child is at risk, some kids are higher risk than others,” said Robert Vilchez, the Gang Task Force coordinator for the county.

Arlington Police say 85 percent of area gangs are Latino, including the Mara Salvatrucha gang or MS-13.  

That gang started in Los Angeles and has spread to other parts of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.  Authorities say the group is involved in everything from petty street theft to human trafficking, drugs and murder for hire.

Arlington Police Captain Brian Berke says the number of known gang members in the area has dropped from a few hundred in the early 1990s to around 100 today. He attributes the decline to suppression by law enforcement and more than 300 education and prevention programs.

“It is not something you can claim victory on because they are transient.  And I believe if we were to stop paying attention to them, and to their criminal activity, that they would once again feel comfortable in coming back and gaining a foothold,” Berke said.

The soccer tournament is an opportunity to reach out to children at risk.  

“Once you join a gang, whether you actually join it by getting jumped in, or whether you are an associate hanging out with them, they will own you at some point.  You will not be making decisions on your own,” said Sergeant Rick Rodriguez, who is with the Arlington County Police.

And tournament organizers say that message resonates with young people.  

“I think it is a really good message because sometimes teens are dragged into gangs and all things.  But that is not the right choice, and it is hard to get your way out,” said sixteen year-old Rodrigo Neiro, who is originally from El Salvador.

Gang Task Force Coordinator Robert Vilchez is encouraged by the success he has seen over the last seven years.  But he says gang prevention is a never- ending battle and that half the battle is simply reaching out to children at risk.