Despite indictments, officials downplay gang activity

Despite indictments, officials downplay gang activity

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Despite the indictment of at least two Alexandria MS-13 members on murder charges earlier this month, city officials have said gang-related activity in Alexandria is infrequent.

Alexandria police and federal officials announced the indictment earlier this month of Jesus Alejandro Chavez and Jose Del Cid, both of Alexandria, and Genaro Sen Garcia with murder in the aid of racketeering, among other charges, in connection with the June shooting death of Julio Caesar Urrutia-Erazo in Arlandria.

Lt. Dennis Andreas, commander of the Alexandria Police Department’s vice unit, said the June homicide was neither the result nor the cause of a rash of local gang activity. In fact, the opposite is true, he said.

“In the broad picture, gang activity is down, both long-term and short-term,” Andreas said. “We’re in a kind of a trough area now. We still keep an eye on it, but we’ve seen nothing in terms of an increase since the incident, and we’ve kind of stayed in that low area consistently.”

While the region may have seen a recent increase in human trafficking cases with connections to gangs like MS-13, Alexandria has been spared, officials said.

“As a general rule, a gang is a money-making enterprise, so they’ll do that in any way they can, whether it be drugs or extortion or prostitution or trafficking,” Andreas said. “But we haven’t seen a whole lot of those cases locally, maybe a handful at most. We’re in tune with the regional human trafficking task force, but I wouldn’t say the gang element is particularly strong in Alexandria.”

Officials say part of the reason for the lack of gang presence in the Port City is the strong prevention network present throughout city government.

Mike Mackey, the city’s gang prevention and intervention coordinator, said efforts to prevent teens and young adults from getting involved with gangs stretches from police to Alexandria City Public Schools to a dozen privately-run mentoring programs in the city.

“It entails a lot of different aspects of our community and how all of us work together, but what that means is … we all try to minimize the risk factors of gang involvement,” he said.

The city trains school faculty, social workers and officers to spot warning signs and catch children headed in that direction early, Mackey said.

“If, for an example, a social worker or a principal notices a young person becoming gang-involved or at risk of such involvement, they can refer the youth to us,” he said. “We have highly trained counselors who will work with the kid and his family to mitigate whatever issues are going on and try to help them make better decisions.”

Officials also visit schools, churches and other community centers to train parents about warning signs and how to keep teens out of gangs.

“A lot of it comes down to changes in behavior,” Mackey said. “But it can look like something may be incredible wrong with a young person, but it may not be. A kid may see something they see online or something — a gang sign or a color or something — and they may just think it’s cool, not knowing the full meaning.

“So we tell parents or school leaders: If you see something, like all of a sudden there’s a strange symbol on the notebook, on the one hand you want the parent to take notice and ask questions. But you don’t want them to board up their house and not let them out. It has to happen on an individual basis.”

City Councilor John Chapman, who serves on a regional gang task force, said making sure parents are involved in their children’s lives is also crucial to an already-successful prevention effort.

“It allows them to understand that their child is going to be a teenager, but it helps give a healthy outlet for that and to still be able to monitor their activities,” Chapman said. “And if parents build a better network amongst themselves, they’re able to look out for their child, and look out for others’ children as well.”

Mackey said a few young people join gangs simply because of a perceived dearth of other opportunities to succeed or provide for themselves. The key is showing what is available to them.

“A critical piece of this whole initiative is to offer a better deal,” he said. “Gangs are seen as a way to make money, so the mission is to present information and supports in our community so they do have a better option. The reason gang activity is low all around has to do with the fact that we do have that better deal.”