WASHINGTON — As police in Virginia untangle a web of disappearances and the brutal killing of a Gaithersburg teen all linked to gangs, police say the tentacles of that gang reach across the Potomac River and far beyond.
Montgomery County, where 15-year-old Damaris Alexandra Reyes Rivas lived with her mother before she was abducted and killed in Virginia, has seen a surge in gang-related violence, according to police.
Gang violence in Montgomery County spiked in 2016 with what police called an unprecedented jump in homicides. According to a June 2016 report, the county saw nine gang-related homicides in an eight-month span.
Five of those homicides were tied to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a gang with roots in Los Angeles and Central America, according to the report.
Members of MS-13 had been threatening Reyes Rivas, the girl’s mother told NBC Washington. Police would not confirm the name of the gang connected to the teen’s death.
In June, Montgomery County Council analysts issued a report on gang violence. That report cited a number of factors for the increase in gang violence, including a crackdown on gangs in Central America, conflict between newly arrived immigrants and those already established in the area plus the arrival of unaccompanied minors who had little support among friends or family.
Police said that unaccompanied minors were most susceptible to grooming by gang members because they were often without resources and experienced a sense of isolation.
Those issues remain a problem, said Captain Paul Liquorie is the director of the Special Investigations Division for the Montgomery County Police Department.
He said a crackdown on gangs by the government in El Salvador would translate into higher crime and violence among gangs here.
“You’re seeing a much harder stance by the government there, which has put a lot more pressure on the American affiliates to do more up here to generate more revenue as well as increase its reputation,” Liquorie said.
Boosting the MS-13 gang’s reputation often translates into increasingly brutal tactics among gang members to discipline their own members or to fight off rival gangs.
Liquorie said that new recruits are often asked to prove their allegiance to the gang by carrying out violent acts soon after joining.
Police in Virginia said during a news conference Thursday that gangs recruit potential members who are in middle school.
“We’re getting some reports of younger recruitment that we’re still working to verify,” Liquorie said.
Social media, however, also plays a role in gang recruitment.
“We see that particularly with MS-13, they are looking for people who are friends with other associates with MS-13 and they’re reaching out to them. It’s almost like a grooming that you would find with any kind of violent extremist movement,” Liquorie said.
Police advise parents to keep a close eye on their children’s social media accounts, and to make sure they know their children’s friends.
County investigators network with other police departments and agencies — a critical part of fighting gang activity, Liquorie said.
“We are coordinating through our regional partners both in Virginia and the District of Columbia. And we’re also working with our regional partners”, he said.
“We’re working very diligently to share information and intelligence and bring prosecutions — even at the federal level where we can bring enhanced penalties and enhanced charges against them. And the U.S. attorney’s office has been a really good partner in helping us with that,” he said.
Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler said such teamwork resulted in charges against 10 people in connection with the disappearance and killing Reyes Rivas.
“Gang crime knows no boundaries and this is difficult to combat. But we have great detectives…..and we will be tireless in making arrests,” Roessler said.
Fairfax County police detail more tips for parents to spot the signs their child might be involved in gangs.