By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
A slew of vandalism incidents has recently hit Alexandria, evoking concerns among some residents about potential gang activity in the city.
Last week, residents in Potomac Greens and Old Town reported similar details about incidents involving the marking up of property, all of which seemingly targeted homes with a one or an eight in the address.
In one post to the social networking site Nextdoor, where neighbors buy and sell items as well as share tips among other community members, a video shows a man, who appears to be in his 20s with dark hair, scratching out the number 18 in a townhome. Another post shows a photo with black symbols on a home’s street number and another covering a sign with the words “Mara Salvatucha,” which is associated with MS-13, an international criminal organization with a presence in the region.
MS-13 first became active in the 1980s and was founded primarily by immigrants who retreated from El Salvador during the country’s civil war. According to the police department in Los Angeles, the origin city of the gang, members use graffiti to “create a sense of intimidation and may increase the sense of fear within a neighborhood.” Graffiti might be used to mark the gang’s territory, declare allegiance, advertise power or status and challenge rivals, according to LAPD.
MS-13 is said to represent “Mara,” meaning “gang,” “Salva,” a nod to the organization’s roots in El Salvador, and “trucha,” meaning “street smarts,” the BBC reported in 2017.
The organization, which is widely known for its brutality and extreme violence, consists of between 6,000 to 10,000 members within the United States, and has spread to at least 46 different states, including Virginia.
As residents grappled with what the vandalism could mean, Nextdoor posters expressed thoughts and theories about possible motivations behind the incidents, which ranged from gang activity to conspiracy groups to individual mental illness.
“This is awful. Hope they catch the criminal(s),” Potomac Yard resident Darrell Smith wrote on Nextdoor. “Graffiti is not normally a sign of domestic terrorists … a gang is more likely, or just [a] disgruntled neighbor or someone with a grudge against [the] upper middle class?”
Commenters shared tips, such as reporting incidents to the Alexandria Police Department and painting over the graffiti as soon as possible in hopes of preventing a response from other taggers. They also discussed the importance of elevating gang awareness in the city.
“People who did not previously know about this problem do, now. People who did, but did not know how to recognize some of the graffiti do, now. People who recognized the graffiti but did not know its significance regarding territory, particularly as it relates to other gangs, do, now,” Del Ray resident Nathan Kurfurst commented.
While this particular investigation remains active, according to APD, the city has taken steps during the past decade to mitigate gang activity in the area, including through the implementation of the Alexandria Gang Prevention Community Task Force.
As part of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, the Alexandria chapter consists of city, community, law enforcement and nongovernmental organization representatives who engage in a four-pronged approach to reduce gang activity, focused on prevention, intervention, suppression and community outreach and education.
With its first meeting held on May 18, 2005, the task force has evolved over the years into a 17-member group with the ultimate goal of increasing youth and family participation in positive activities, decreasing gang incidents and increasing school attendance and graduation rates.
The task force is a “collaboration” of sorts, according to Mark Shiffer, who has served as a member representing Alexandria City Councilor Mo Seifeldein since 2018.
A typical meeting consists of participants ranging from law enforcement to NGOs, reporting on what specifically they’re working on and examining ways they can work together to bolster their individual programs.
Each program has its own charter and reaches out to other organizations where it’s lacking, whether that be in resources or funding. Shiffer noted that court systems and law enforcement don’t allocate funds specifically to address long-term solutions, which is where the collaboration with NGOs comes in.
“It doesn’t do any good for the courts to keep somebody out of jail or divert them from the system if there’s no support that keeps them from getting caught up and brought back in, so that’s what this task force is for,” Shiffer said.
The overarching purpose of the task force is to both keep tabs on gang activity in the area and create a space for a transfer of information between organizations with the intention of implementing sustainable long-term solutions.
“Each of these organizations have a particular focus, and each one isn’t really broad enough to solve the problem completely,” Shiffer said. “For example, law enforcement and courts have a good overview of the issue. They know when there’s a problem because they’re called in, but they don’t necessarily have the resources for longterm support for kids who are brought into the system.”
“So this is a place where they can collaborate with these NGOs and city staff,” Shiffer added. “It creates an ecosystem where there’s a full scope of knowledge and purpose to actually solve the problem.”
One of the NGOs heavily involved in the task force is Casa Chirilagua, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that works to support the Hispanic/Latino community in the city. Around 17% of Alexandria’s population is Latino.
Casa Chirilagua Executive Director Adriana Schellhaas said that within the gang prevention task force exists a mentoring partnership among nonprofits, which she called a “huge” preventative measure to risky behavior, particularly gang activity.
The one-on-one program, which is geared toward youth who are considered at risk, operates under the mantra of “two lives transformed by one mentorship.” It matches students from elementary to high school-age with an adult mentor who has undergone a strenuous screening process that includes background checks and training.
“It’s not like, ‘We’re matching you with a mentor to not have you participate in drugs or gangs.’ It’s more like, ‘This is a safe adult that can help provide you with any support you need, whether it’s academic, social, or emotional,’” Schellhaas said. “The more safe adults a child has, the higher chance that this child will grow up to be a safe and emotional[ly functioning] adult.”
According to the Virginia Department of Health, gang members generally range from age 12 to 24 in Virginia, and 49% of them are Latino.
Schellhaas defined “at risk” students as those who come from unstable households where there may be trauma, abuse or absence of parental figures, and therefore a yearning to find identity.
“This identity piece is so key, the idea that you have value: ‘We see you, we love you and you have a purpose,’” Schellhaas said. “For many of the students, [they find identity] in places of belonging – you’re going to find that in the family, you’re going to find that with a group of friends or within a gang that can provide that identity for you.”
Signs or red flags that students could be susceptible to participating in gang activity include behavioral patterns like an aggressive defiance of authority, whether that is Casa Chirilagua staff or parents, Schellhaas said. She also pointed to severe unresolved trauma, such as that which manifests in minors making the migration journey, or language such as negative self-talk where students repeatedly call themselves dumb or unintelligent.
“That can be dangerous because then they’re going to be looking to find that affirmation. Hopefully it’s positive places, but it can also be places that aren’t positive, but where they’re receiving affirmation,” Schellhaas said.
While she hasn’t seen tagging, particularly targeting homes with ones and eights in the Chirilagua community, Schellhaas said she does see many youth at risk of becoming involved in gangs due to a perceived lack of belonging.
“That’s what we address in our programs; we provide spaces of belonging,” Schellhaas said, adding that the mentorship program fuels the organization’s five-year vision of continuing the pipeline of future indigenous leaders in Alexandria.
Anyone who has information about the recent taggings is encouraged to email APD Detective Trevor Griffin at [email protected]