Crackdowns on illegal immigrants and other law enforcement efforts are driving gangs out of Northern Virginia and into Maryland and the District, a report released Monday concluded.
"Many gang members from Northern Virginia are moving or driving to Prince George's and other Maryland counties, into the District of Columbia or further south and west into Virginia to avoid dealing with police departments that are unrelenting in their efforts to keep gangs under control," authorities wrote in the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force report.
The report said the task force's success is the result of Virginia law enforcement's use of anti-gang policing measures, including the referring of suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities. Since the task force was created in 2003, it has arrested 952 gang members, more than 40 percent of whom were illegal immigrants, the report said.
Northern Virginia gangs by the numbers:
5,000: estimated number of gang members
80-100: number of gangs and cliques
3,000: members of El Salvador-based MS-13
25: percentage of black gang members
66: percentage of Hispanic gang members
80: percentage of gang crimes committed by youths 16 years old and younger
Experts say jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, where police are told to look away from immigration violations, have become safe havens for gangs.
The law enforcement group hired independent reviewers to develop the "Comprehensive Gang Assessment," which studied the effect of the task force's efforts between 2003 and 2008 in Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties, as well as Alexandria. The task force has brought federal and local law enforcement agencies together, and the report credits it with helping drive down the region's violent crime rate by 17 percent over the six years of the study.
But officials on the other side of the Potomac said there is no evidence to back up the report's claim -- based on anecdotal evidence -- that the gangs are fleeing into their jurisdictions.
"We simply don't have any evidence to support that assertion," said Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett's spokesman, Patrick Lacefield. The county's police department recently has made it more difficult for officers to report suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities, even if they're gang members.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey said violent crime has been dropping in the county, where homicides this year may reach lows not seen since the late 1990s. Violent activity by Hispanic gangs has dropped off since federal authorities successfully prosecuted MS-13 gang leaders on racketeering charges. However, Ivey said, traditionally black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods have been making inroads, but primarily through the jail system and not through migration from other areas.
Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the "enforcement-free zones" that define Maryland's and the District's approach to illegal immigrants "benefit only the lawbreaker and are a threat to public safety."
He added, "a jurisdiction which welcomes illegal immigration also welcomes gang activity."