Since notorious street gang MS-13 put down roots in the D.C. area, officials in tiny Arlington County have worked to establish one of the most extensive gang prevention programs in the region, focusing on keeping children out of gangs and helping current gang members get out.
Arlington documented 10 active street gangs in 2011, and 237 gang members came into contact with police in the same year. But the county has more prevention programs than any of the surrounding jurisdictions. And officials say its efforts are part of the reason Northern Virginia has seen a 34 percent decrease in gang activity since 2003.
Prevention programs in Arlington range from the obvious, like hosting after-school programs for vulnerable kids, to the creative -- like a free tattoo-removal program for former gang members.
At a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by Leadership Arlington, a local nonprofit aimed at educating and connection community leaders, gang prevention experts and members of the Arlington Police Department's gang unit outlined the importance of reaching out to young people before they're drawn in by gangs like MS-13.
"We know gangs are targeting recently immigrated youth," said Meredith McKeen, of Northern Virginia Family Services. "They're trying to recruit children to do their dirty work."
Panelists said gang prevention is often as simple as organizing after-school activities for vulnerable youth -- like an annual soccer tournament for at-risk kids -- or providing mentoring services for parents who may be struggling to reach their children.