MS-13, the target of a major federal indictment in Maryland last summer, isn't the state's biggest gang problem. The Bloods are.
That is the conclusion reached by the state's leading gang investigators, who presented their latest findings yesterday at a summit in Columbia of 300 law enforcement officers, political leaders and educators.
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, originated in Los Angeles among refugees from El Salvador and received national attention in recent years for its rapid spread and violence.
Federal prosecutors charged 19 alleged MS-13 members from Southern Maryland in August.
Experts said yesterday that it is still the Bloods, who crop up on street corners in Baltimore, in schools in Harford County and in prisons throughout the state, who have the greatest reach.
"They're the outside influence here," said Maj. David Engel, the chief of the Baltimore Police Department's criminal intelligence unit.
The daylong conference, funded by a $2 million federal grant to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office, sought to promote local and federal efforts to prevent young people from joining gangs, to encourage current members to quit, and to lock up their leaders.
Gang violence in the region has grown, but officials acknowledge that some police chiefs and political figures were, until recently, loath to say there was a crisis ahead.
"We know that we have a gang problem in every county of Maryland," Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said.
"The first goal is no turf battles," the governor told participants, adding that the effort to combat gangs should transcend partisan differences and bureaucratic wrangling.
Ehrlich announced $300,000 in state funding for new anti-gang efforts in Maryland. The federal government, through Project Safe Neighborhoods, will kick in $500,000 for Baltimore and for Montgomery, Prince George's, Wicomico and Baltimore counties, Rosenstein said.
Detective Patrick Word, a Gaithersburg police officer and vice chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network, said authorities have identified at least 100 gangs in the state.
The size of gangs ranges from three members to those that claim more than 100 members, Word said.
In Baltimore, gangs were once known somewhat benignly as "street crews" who limited their activity to drug dealing on a particular cross street. In state prisons, they are still known clinically as "security threat groups."
Word said they should all be known as gangs. And every law broken by their members - from running a red light to beating their wives to committing murder - should be duly recorded by law enforcement as gang activity, he said.
Experts stressed that intelligence shows an ever-changing picture of gang activity in Maryland. National gangs have arrived in large numbers in Baltimore only in the past 10 months, Engel said.
Between 1999 and 2005, the city had a single Bloods and Crips set. Today, Engel said, there are 14 Bloods and five Crips sets.
Detective Scott Yosua of the Harford County sheriff's office explained that he had to eat his words after he told a local newspaper that the gang problem in his county was so limited that most residents would never notice.
"I was proved to be wrong," he said.
He changed his mind, he said, after the 2004 shooting death of a 37-year-old father of nine. Wayne Lavon Bond Jr., who prosecutors said was a Bloods recruit, was found guilty of first-degree murder and received 45 years in prison.
Yosua said authorities have documented 140 Bloods members in the county, though some might no longer be active.
That is not to say that gang experts will ignore MS-13 members in Maryland, officials said.
Mara refers to a gang, while Salva is an abbreviation for Salvadoran. Trucha is slang for "fear us," according to federal authorities. An estimated 10,000 MS-13 members are in the United States, many in the Washington suburbs, which has a large number of Central American immigrants.
Authorities are tracking other developments, including a new outpost of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang in Baltimore. Until recently, Word said, the rival Pagans were thought to hold the greatest sway in Maryland.
Many yesterday called for the increased coordination among anti-gang law enforcement agents in the state and better links to the work on the national level.
Word added that Maryland should pass a state racketeering law to mirror the one in the federal system known as RICO.
The RICO statutes have enabled prosecutors to hold gang members responsible for their crimes and seek hefty prison sentences, as well as seize their assets, according to Word.