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MS-13 Gang Strong in Montgomery, Prince George's Counties

Local officials say state laws may not be up to the task.

 

Capital News Service
By Colleen Jaskot

Although a new tool in the federal government's fight against the violent gang MS-13 may help curb the growing problem in Maryland, local officials say state laws aren't so effective.

In October, MS-13, a gang with a strong presence in Maryland, was the first criminal street gang to be named a transnational criminal organization by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. This designation allows the government to seize the gang's assets and freeze property, and it provides that anyone who does business with the gang can be sanctioned and face federal prosecution.

"It means they can't utilize financial institutions," said Nicole Navas, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which works to combat gang crime. "It's really a blow to their ability to operate globally."

This MS-13 designation is important because it strikes at the gang's finances, which is key in taking down gangs, said Sgt. Robert Musser, supervisor of Montgomery County Police Department's gang unit.

"I think that you won't make an impact on the organized gangs until you hit them financially," Musser said. "That's still what gets to them, other than the protection and the culture and the family and all that. That's the only reason the gang stays together -- is for financial gain."

In Maryland, MS-13 activity has been reported in 13 of 23 counties and Baltimore City, with the strongest presence in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said Maryland State police spokeswoman Elena Russo.

Gang crime has gone up in Montgomery County. The first half of 2012 compared to 2011 has seen 165 gang-related crimes, as opposed to 159.

However, as more resources are put toward fighting gang crime, more incidents will be recorded, Musser said.

"It probably hasn't increased, but it's definitely become violent," Musser said. "We're seeing more aggravated assault."

In Prince George's County, gang crime "still exists," said Assistant Chief Kevin Davis of the Prince George's County Police Department. "It's not nearly at the level it was five, six, seven, eight years ago."

While federal orders are attacking the core of MS-13's financial power, on a state level, Maryland does not have strong laws dealing with the property and assets of gangs, or strong gang laws in general.

"I think the gang law in Maryland has not been effective, in that it's not something that's widely used throughout the state," said Jason Abbott, assistant attorney general to Maryland.

Maryland gang laws are fairly recent, with legislation passed in 2007 and 2010.

"In other states, laws have evolved over time," Abbott said. "Maryland gang law was enacted in 2007, so it's not on the level of other states."

As of 2009, 10 states had laws that allow courts to order forfeiture of property used for offenses that benefit or are used in the direction of a criminal gang.

"It will be something that is used more once it becomes more helpful to prosecutors, and they see it as a tool they can use to prosecute gang members," Abbott said. "Right now, it's rarely used because of what was created in 2007 and 2010."

In 2008, a bill like this was introduced in the Maryland Senate, but it did not pass because opponents said it was too ambiguous and written so broadly that people unaffiliated with gangs could lose property, according a 2009 report from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

"Some critics have said the gang statutes need to be more specific and have more teeth to them," said Ramon Korionoff, public affairs director for the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office. "In terms of criminal gangs, it's still very difficult in Maryland to pursue gang members when they act on individual crimes."

This means that in court, there is a difference between a gang member committing a crime for gang purposes, or an individual, who happens to be in a gang, committing a crime.

In Prince George's County, gang members have been successfully prosecuted under the gang laws, Davis said.

Law enforcement needs to be "careful about throwing a gang-related label" on a crime, Davis said.

However, with MS-13, Musser said, in Montgomery County their crimes are usually clearly associated with the gang.

"Crime with MS-13 tends to be more gang-related," Musser said. "It's motivated by the gang affiliation. With the other gangs, it's usually just committed by a gang member, not necessarily motivated by the gang membership."

"The most active in (Montgomery County) is definitely MS-13, and they're also the most organized," said Musser.

Although Maryland law does not aim at the finances of gangs, the new federal designation could help Maryland.

"I'd be optimistic," said Musser. "I'd say if the feds deem it a high priority now, they will be putting more resources towards it and ... it will obviously trickle down to us and help us on a local level."

Local police departments work with each other and federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to combat gang problems.

"We work with our local, state, federal and international law enforcement to identify and locate MS-13 members," said Navas.

The Department of Homeland Security's partnerships with police departments in Maryland are important to tackle gang problems, Navas said.

"We work closely with them," Musser said. "We don't work on a regular basis with them, but we have very good contacts and resources with Homeland Security."

Prince George's County Police Department has relationships with federal law enforcement agencies, also, as well as collaborations with other local police agencies.

In Montgomery County, gang crime is "underneath the radar," Musser said.

Gang members don't have tattoos and they look like regular people, "because they've gotten smarter about it," Musser said.

People think in Montgomery County, they "don't have gang crime," Musser said. "It's because it's a covert subculture."

Kristi Janzen November 27, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Your headline on this Capital News Service story is misleading, and I feel unfair to Prince George's. I clicked on and opened this story, because I thought it would be about new or worse gang activity, based on the lead, which would worry me as a local resident. But it is actually about the U.S. Treasury Department's ability to designate gangs as a "transnational criminal organization" and a general discussion of gang laws (or lack thereof) in Maryland. I am concerned with the misleading headline, because I think it perpetuates bad stereotypes about Prince George's County, when, if you look at the details, there is more going on. Specifically, after reading the details, I found it surprising to note that according to the Prince George's Police, as noted in this exact article, gang crime is down from several years ago: "In Prince George's County, gang crime 'still exists,' said Assistant Chief Kevin Davis of the Prince George's County Police Department. 'It's not nearly at the level it was five, six, seven, eight years ago'." Also, it is not right to lump Montgomery and Prince George's Counties together on many issues, and if you look at this article carefully, you can see that gang issues in the two counties are somewhat different, even if they are both struggling with them. I think you should have tied the U.S. Treasury designation together with crime in our area in a more accurate way, or you spread fear without any new specifics.
Town Resident November 27, 2012 at 09:35 PM
I am not sure I agree with your sensitivity to this headline Ms. Janzen. The headline is true and it caught my attention. I read the whole article. Very informative.
C.Z. Guy November 29, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Not surprising at all here in Moco since we have the welcome mat and the free stuff sign out for illegals.
Jacqueline Bradley Chacon November 29, 2012 at 06:54 PM
Gangs are disturbing anywhere they are found for the greater community and also for the family members who suffer because their loved ones took a wrong path to join a gang. However, C.Z. Guy's remark just lends itself to fear and hatred. Gang members span the boundaries of race, ethnicity and nationality---they are not just the 'illegals.' That MS-13 is here in P.G. County as well as other places in the U.S. including Los Angeles (where the gang originally began, then was exported back to El Salvador) is a reality. The question is 'what to do'? Stronger criminal penalties coupled with stronger socio-economic policies to deter or prevent the formation or strengthening of gangs is essential--and these approaches now must be international in scope. Ironically, the MD Dream Act and the President's initiative to allow (law abiding) people who entered the U.S. as children and who are students or high school graduates or who serve in the U.S. military a way to live, work and study legally is one essential part of solving a multi-dimensional problem.
Kennis Termini November 29, 2012 at 07:15 PM
There have been recent local murders of MS13 members who were by all accounts academically successful but with a hidden life lifestyle. One was of a female member found dead in a Beltsville, Md park.
C.Z. Guy November 29, 2012 at 08:09 PM
I will be the first to admit that I fear MS-13 and hate them for wanting to rob, rape and kill me, my family or any other law abiding citizen they choose to target. You are deluding yourself if you don't think that most of them have entered and reside in this country illegally. Spreading mayhem is their stock in trade-when they target you, they won't give a whit about your noble intentions.
Kennis Termini November 29, 2012 at 09:38 PM
MS13 and others are only part of the issue. Corporate GREED feeds into this by producing apparel that supports these different groups. I would encourage anyone to sit in on a gang intervention meeting as was recently held by Sgt. Norris of Prince George's County Police who is a recognized national expert on this. Believe it or not...their are gay gangs, girl gangs, gangs in law enforcement etc. We need to go after the clothing and shoe mfg's who are in essence promoting this issue often unknown to the parents by producing and selling gang associated articles. Parents please educate yourself. Good kids can be enticed and religion, doting parents may not always be the answer. Sometimes the kids join a gang because they have been the subject of bullying in schools! Also, this usually starts in the 4th or 5th grades...
Kennis Termini November 29, 2012 at 09:42 PM
C.Z. Guy. Keep in mind that they normally prey on their own kind. They do not want to be seen ie sorta like cockroaches when you turn on the light.
Jenni Pompi (Editor) December 10, 2012 at 07:57 PM
Comments by user Roberta Rubin have been deleted for violating Patch's Terms of use. You can find a copy of Patch's Terms of Use here: http://bowie.patch.com/terms
jag December 10, 2012 at 08:22 PM
Sounds like you're confusing crews and gangs.
J January 31, 2013 at 08:14 PM
Until Maryland realizes that being a "sanctuary" for illegal aliens the MS-13/18th Street/Latin Kings/Surenos gang problems will never be solved. This country has given up on its founding principles and until they are restored it will continue to decline...
J January 31, 2013 at 08:15 PM
And just to respond to another comment, MS-13 does have US Citizens within its ranks, but they are few and far between... The vast majority of them are illegal aliens from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who come here for no other reason than to create havoc within the communities in which they settle!
Jenni Pompi (Editor) May 26, 2013 at 01:31 AM
Comments by Chuck have been removed for profanity, which is a violation of Patch's Terms of Use. You can read the full terms of use here: http://collegepark.patch.com/terms

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