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Comstock: Confronting the scourge of MS-13

On a warm summer night in June, a young boy standing on the sidewalk along Sterling Boulevard in Sterling caught the eye of a veteran member of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. After years of working the streets, the officer knew the MS-13 signs. The boy on the street looked like a 16-year old, but was actually a 22-year old member of the transnational violent street gang known as MS-13. He was covered in MS-13 gang tattoos on his chest, back, and feet and it turns out he had been in jail in El Salvador for murder as a teenager and had already been deported from the U.S. twice for engaging in violent crimes here.

Young children and their moms at the shopping center watched as the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force took the gang member into custody.  Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity and I witnessed first-hand the exhausting work that night of our task force, the technology they utilize on the streets, the detailed knowledge they have of our communities and our neighborhoods, and the challenges they face with a problem that has returned to our area. Three other suspected MS-13 gang members – that are part of an estimated 3,000 to -4,000 in our region according to law enforcement—were picked up as well. And this is not an aberration: At a town festival in Herndon this year, the gang task force identified an estimated 200-300 suspected gang members mingling among families and children.

The Washington Post has highlighted how the 2014 border surge has contributed to the MS-13 problem saying, “The violent street gang is on the rise in the United States, fueled, in part, by the surge in unaccompanied minors.” A recent Post article documented the case of gang members who videotaped the murder of a 15-year-old girl, Damaris A. Reyes Rivas, who was savagely beaten and repeatedly stabbed by multiple gang members. The video was intended to be sent to MS-13 gang leadership in El Salvador to confirm that the “green-lit” murder had been carried out. The trial is now ongoing with the grizzly details getting less attention than they should.

MS-13, has an estimated 85,000 members in South America, according to media reports. It is the only street gang to be designated by federal authorities as a transnational crime organization. The unaccompanied minors, who often fled their native country to get away from these violent gangs there, arrive here only to find themselves targeted by gang members who infiltrated our country via the same porous borders. MS-13 preys upon these youngsters who may not have much of a family structure around them and, in effect, become a substitute family as well as intimidate them into joining. According to the gang task force, an MS-13 gang member recently put out a hit on his own brother because he wouldn’t join the gang. Fortunately, the task force was there to intervene, but it is running short on resources and needs more support and that is why we are starting with more help on the federal level.

The community policing involved with the task force includes officers who speak Spanish and understand the culture of gangs and their threats as well as understanding the communities in which they work. ICE officials complement these efforts by removing the dangerous gang members so that the task force can better work in our highest risk schools on gang prevention and education efforts as well as their vital law enforcement role.

Since November 2016, at least eight murders have been committed and tied to MS-13 and other gangs, representing a 166% increase over the last year.  In July, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force and federal law enforcement agencies worked together to capture 20-year old Douglas Alexander Herrera-Hernandez, an illegal alien from El Salvador. He is suspected of murdering two people in Texas earlier this year and was on the Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in Texas.  In June, another MS-13 suspect Marlo Danilo Rivas-Mendez was arrested by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. Following protocol, deputies turned over custody of Rivas-Mendez to ICE, where he later escaped and assaulted an agent along the Dulles Toll Road before being caught hours later. Rivas-Mendez had been deported back to his home country of El Salvador five times over the years.

The Herrera-Hernandez and Rivas-Mendez cases highlight how alleged MS-13 gang members repeatedly get back into our country.  Last week I introduced H.R. 3697, the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act to combat gang violence by criminal aliens and enhance public safety. ICE has found that membership of violent transnational gangs is comprised largely of foreign-born nationals. In order to protect Americans from these violent gangs, the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act ensures that alien gang members are kept off our streets by barring them from coming to the United States and detaining and removing them if they are criminal gang members or participate in gang activity. This legislation is slated to be taken up this week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

I also recently introduced H.R. 3249, the Project Safe Neighborhoods Grant Program Authorization Act, which will direct additional federal funding towards regional gang task forces such as ours. The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, comprised of 13 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, explains that the best anti-gang method is a three-pronged approach: education, intervention/prevention and enforcement. The Northern Virginia region ranks second in the country, after Los Angeles, in MS-13 gang presence. This legislation authorizes $70 million annually for FY2018 through FY2022, with 20% being directed toward already-established regional gang task forces. 

We have also included provisions in the House Appropriations Committee to prioritize grant funding for existing Regional Gang Task Forces like the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force.  When I went on the ride along, I saw first-hand technology used by ICE in the field that with the simple swipe of a fingerprint they had the criminal history of the MS-13 gang member they had just arrested. By getting more funds to Gang Task Forces, they will be able to buy these important tools that will help them quickly identify criminal gang members in our community and expedite the steps to remove them. 

In June, The House of Representatives passed Kate’s Law with a bipartisan majority including twenty-four Democrats. This bill—named for Kate Steinle, who was killed in San Francisco by a man who had seven felony convictions and had been deported five times prior to Kate’s murder—increases the penalties that may be imposed on criminal aliens convicted of illegal reentry. The Senate now needs to take up this legislation. 

It is clear that the resurgence of MS-13 is a multifaceted problem that needs a multifaceted solution, incorporating efforts from all levels of government, law enforcement, and our communities. Passing these measures to fortify our Northern Virginia Gang Task Force is a good start. 

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R)

10th Congressional District of Virginia

Jameson: We’ll miss Julie Grandfield

On behalf of the Loudoun Human Services Network, we are writing in appreciation of the many contributions made by Julie Grandfield to improve the quality of life in Loudoun County, especially for those in need.

Julie, Loudoun County’s Assistant County Administrator, retired at the end of June, 2017, after working for the County for over 33 years. She passed away on August 18.

Julie will be remembered by the members of the Loudoun Human Services Network and many, many others for her strong support of and encouragement for the successful public-private partnerships developed by the County and human service nonprofits to serve the community. Her advocacy on behalf of the programs provided by nonprofits and especially on behalf of those we serve was remarkable, effective and long standing. We were proud to work alongside her to support our Loudoun community and its residents.

We extend our sincere condolences to her family. Julie made a huge difference in our community and we are very saddened by her loss.

Carol G. Jameson

Loudoun Human Services Network Chairwoman

Bishop Burbidge: ‘Disheartened’ by Trump’s DACA announcement

I join my voice with those who are disheartened by the news that President Trump will rescind DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Standing with my brother Bishops, I urge Congress and the President to enact legislation that will safeguard those currently protected by this important program.

While the issue of immigration is complicated—and our government has many considerations to balance in responding to the influx of those who seek safety, and personal and economic security in our country—offering special protection to those who only know the United States as home is a reasonable measure of compassion.

This news is undoubtedly troubling for the hundreds of thousands approved through DACA. I ask all Catholics and people of good will in the Diocese of Arlington to keep these individuals, as well as our government officials, in prayer. May we as a country be considerate of our neighbors and defend those whom we have offered protection and safe harbor.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge

Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington

Leloudis: History reveals intentions behind Confederate statues in Leesburg and nation

Damon: Program seeks support for fighting drug abuse

Reid: Slave memorial balances history

Stevenson: Acts of bigotry divide the nation

Reeder: Give constituents voice in decision

Hines: Save Southern heritage, save the statues

Voell: Memo to politicians: You have obligation to understand issues

The Smalls: Families, universities should protect students from meningitis

Kirkland: Time to move it

McDaniel: Don’t use my heritage to advance your agenda

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