BLOOMERY, West Virginia- It seems an unlikely setting for a meeting of big-city gang members - a secluded spot along the Shenandoah River where the loudest noises come from tires crunching gravel and water rushing over the dam.
But it's here, on a narrow road just across the Virginia state line, that authorities say members of MS-13, one of the nation's most violent gangs, have begun to congregate.
"If you just drove through, you wouldn't notice. But we sit and watch what they do," says Jefferson County sheriff's Lt. Bobby Shirley. While women serve picnics and children play, "the men are standing around, clearly doing business."
MS-13 is shorthand for Mara Salvatrucha, a Latin American gang founded in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador. Federal authorities consider it one of the nation's most vicious street gangs and estimate it has some 10,000 members in more than 30 states.
Earlier this year, after several murders in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the FBI announced a crackdown. Hundreds of members have been rounded up and some deported. But the gang, in part to lower its profile, is spreading out.
West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, less than 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Washington, offers a haven from prying eyes.
"We're so close to Baltimore, Washington, even Philadelphia, that we're getting an element that we definitely don't want," says State Police Capt. Rob Blair, commander of the troop based in Charles Town.
Police suspect MS-13 in only a few assaults and robberies, but Jefferson County Sheriff Ed Boober is certain the gang is present _ and preying on some of the county's newest residents.
A growing number of Hispanic immigrants have found work here, lured by the apple orchards, booming construction market and thoroughbred racing industry. Often, though, they arrive alone and friendless, a situation the gang can use.
"They're recruiting everywhere. They're looking for people who don't belong," Boober said. "The bad thing is, once you join, you can't unjoin."
Though gang activity is not pervasive, Boober says there are subtle signs: MS graffiti on buildings. Clothing emblazoned with 13, XIII or MS. Teens at Jefferson High School weaving red bandannas through belt loops.
"It's very quiet. It's below the top of the water. But we know it's there," the sheriff says. "To say that they are not present in our community is putting your head in the sand."
Later this month, Thomas E. Johnston, U.S. attorney for West Virginia's northern district, will hold a training session for local law enforcement agencies.
"I view this as something that's possibly on the horizon and certainly a potential threat worth preparing for," Johnston said.
Former Modesto, California, police officer Jared Lewis says MS-13 markets the gang as a way to embrace Latin American heritage. Parents who are unfamiliar with American teens' customs may not recognize what's happening, mistakenly believing their children are just learning to fit in.
"They think all kids throw hand signs, all kids wear colors, all kids write these symbols on their books," says Lewis, director of Wisconsin-based Know Gangs, a group of consultants who educate law enforcement, teachers and social workers. "But I don't know of any culture _ Mexican, Irish, African-American, Polish, whatever _ that gang membership is part of the heritage."
Lewis says West Virginia should take MS-13 seriously, regardless of how benign it now seems.
"There is this perception that because they're not out there carrying guns and shooting people every day, that they're different from other gangs," he says.
But they aren't.
"If that kid is interested in gangs, that's an interest in drugs. That's an interest in violence. That's an interest in victimizing the weak. If that interest is there, that's a problem," Lewis says. "It's just a matter of how long it takes interest to turn to action."
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