ROCKVILLE, Md. — Montgomery County police report that typically, they may have one, perhaps two, gang-related homicides in any given year. Last year, there were eight, most of whom are also gang members.
“It’s not random victims — these are targeted victims,” Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger told the county council Thursday night.
Manger directed the council members to maps in a packet provided by police that pinpointed where juvenile crime — not just gang-related crime — occurs. He highlighted clusters of criminal activity in the Cinnamon Woods area of Germantown, in Montgomery Village, in Aspen Hill, in White Oak and in the Briggs-Chaney area of the county.
During the hourslong briefing, Montgomery County Council Member George Leventhal took pains to emphasize that gang activity shouldn’t be seen as a problem in the Latino community alone, and Manger’s description of the problem bolstered that.
“There are two types of gang activity in Montgomery County” Manger said. “There are the ethnic gangs, these are typically Latino gangs, and there are also the neighborhood crews. In fact, we have more ‘neighborhood’ gangs than we do ethnic gangs, but they are both involved in criminal activity.”
As council members responded to some of the testimony, offering comment, one council member became frustrated with the direction of the conversation, including Nancy Navarro.
“Five years ago I was talking about this. Parents afraid of going out of their homes for after school activities and evening meetings because of the crime,” Navarro exclaimed.
She says the council had been having conversations about needs in the community for years, and that the focus should shift from identifying issues to putting programs into action.
“Let’s just get down to business,” Navarro added.
Manger said police are working on a variety of fronts to combat gang activity: working with federal officials on gangs that operate internationally and on an interstate basis, as well as working with police departments across the region. But he also said police are working hand-in-hand with social service agencies and the schools to prevent gang recruitment.
One way in which the Latino community is affected by gang violence is connected to the recent influx of unaccompanied minors to the United States. Manger explained these young people don’t come to the country as gang members, but are targeted, harassed and recruited because they are often isolated and have no other social or economic support.
Manger said gangs target possible recruits by monitoring the social media of young people who live in the county but may be keeping in touch with family members in their home countries.
“The gangs get family members’ names, addresses … and this information is used to intimidate and extort money” from the new arrivals, who Manger said are under a lot of pressure to comply with whatever the gang members may demand.
At one point, council member Roger Berliner commented that he felt overwhelmed by the issues being described.
“I just don’t see the hope here, help me see the hope,” he said, nodding toward Manger.
“The hope starts one person at a time. We could recount to you success stories of kids who were in gangs that we’ve gotten out … there are plenty of success stories,” Manger responded.
Berliner interrupted him, asking how the county can fight the kind of gang activity that includes international extortion, as gangs threaten county residents by saying they’ll kill their relatives back in El Salvador.
“Things have changed, the challenges continue, they continue to evolve. And our responses to them continue to evolve. So I do have hope,” Manger said.