A Northern Virginia gang task force that targeted MS-13, the area’s largest gang, was shut down earlier this year, leaving a potentially dangerous void in its absence.
The newest executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, Jay Lanham, told the Washington Examiner on Thursday that the 20-year-old task force had suddenly disbanded on Jan. 1, a dissolution he blamed to anti-police sentiment.
“The task force was disbanded effective January 1,” Lanham wrote in an email. “I’m certainly disappointed, but I also understand the challenges law enforcement faces these days, especially with staffing. With the demonization of law enforcement in recent years, agencies are scrambling to hire and fill gaps with those who have retired or left. And funding has always been a struggle.”
There was no formal announcement, Lanham said, after the task force’s steering committee opted to disband it in 2022. The steering committee was made up of more than a dozen enforcement representatives from the Northern Virginia County and City Law.
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The task force shutdown comes amid a homicide investigation involving an MS-13 gang member in the small town of Aberdeen, Maryland.
A 20-year-old autistic resident, Kayla Hamilton, was raped and strangled to death in July 2022. Local police have identified a 17-year-old Hispanic male from El Salvador who belongs to MS-13 as the prime suspect in the incident .
MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, is known for extreme violence. In 2012, the Treasury Department declared it a transnational criminal organization smuggling people, drugs and weapons between Central America and the United States.
MS-13 was “by far the largest gang in Northern Virginia,” Lanham said in 2019.
The regional task force was formed in 2003 with the help of former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who acquired grants to fund the effort as the band was becoming a growing concern just outside the nation’s capital.
The influx of federal money stopped in 2012, and cities and counties were forced to step in to cover the watered-down version of the task force.
Former President Donald Trump had brought MS-13 back into the national spotlight during his time in office, with more than 160 mentions in 2017 and 2018.
The absence of the task force leaves a void at the local level in gang prevention efforts.
“It will certainly create a void from a regional approach to the local level,” Lanham wrote in an email Thursday. “Agencies will continue to address gang issues, but currently only Fairfax County and Prince William County have full-time gang units dedicated to gang investigations. The Intervention/Prevention/Education group will continue to exist and will remain focused on its mission. It’s hard to say whether the vacuum will contribute to more gang involvement. Federal agencies will continue to focus on gangs, but they’re not as focused on local gang crime.”
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In a 2019 investigation, the Washington Examiner exposed that immigrants who fled Central American countries to get away from transnational criminal organizations like MS-13 arrived in the United States only to find the exact same gangs terrorizing northern communities of Virginia. Historically, head-to-toe tattoos have made members easy to identify, and the more tattoos, the higher the member’s rank. Members show loyalty to the gang by committing horrific crimes against non-gang members.