STERLING, Virginia —Danny Centeno wasn’t acting himself during a recent lunch break in the Park View High School cafeteria. A friend remembers him staring silently at his food, as if transfixed by some private worry. It was a strange display of melancholy from a guy known for his attentiveness and quick laugh.
The following day, the 17-year-old sophomore from El Salvador was behaving even more oddly, bordering on skittish. After picking through another meal with friends, he left the table with sudden haste and was seen running home with nervous steps.
The next morning, on Friday Sept. 4, Danny was shot dead while leaving his house to catch the school bus. The alleged gunman — a 16-year-old — ambushed Danny one block from his front door, shooting him multiple times in the back as he tried to flee to safety into the nearest building. A memorial of wilting flowers still ascends the apartment steps where Danny fell one month ago, alongside a sign reading: "All Lives Matter, Vaya Con Dios."
Danny’s murder is being treated as a gang killing, although police won’t discuss the details of the case. Shortly after gunshots were reported to 911, the FBI and the Northern Virginia Anti-Gang Task Force were deployed to help the local sheriff’s department investigate.
Although the shooting occurred 1 mile from campus, Park View High School went on full lockdown. All classroom and exterior doors were locked, black construction paper was taped over windows, students huddled around their iPhones, men arrived with guns and earpieces, helicopters circled the skies, and local reporters fretted on live TV from the school parking lot.
It was a dreadful way to end the first week of school after summer vacation. But authorities say the incident highlighted Sterling’s readiness to respond to the long reach of Central American gang violence. And Park View's full day lockdown shows how U.S. schools—even those in middle class suburbs—are increasingly on the front lines of a foreign gang war that's not so foreign.
Rapid police work led to three arrests within 24 hours. The youngest suspect, whose identity has not been released because he's a minor, was charged with first-degree murder, and the other two men — Salvadoran immigrants ages 19 and 20 — were charged with accessory and possession of a weapon. Two of the suspects are dropouts of Park View High School, and all three are thought to have ties to El Salvador’s dreaded MS-13 street gang, also known as the Mara Salvatrucha.
Danny's possible connection to a gang remains unclear. Conflicting and unconfirmed reports postulate that he was either: 1) trying to flee gang violence when he moved here from El Salvador two years ago; 2) rebuffing recruitment attempts by the MS-13 in Virginia; or 3) possibly associated with the rival Barrio 18 gang in El Salvador.
The Loudoun County Sheriff department’s top gang expert, Sgt. Kevin Tucker, told me the MS-13 gangbangers in Sterling are mostly "getting their marching orders from El Sal (El Salvador).”
That raises the frightening possibility that Danny’s hit could have been ordered from abroad. One theory is that it was retaliation for a prior offense in El Salvador related to alleged ties to Barrio 18. But so far the sheriff's department has not publicly identified a motive and is asking the community for help gathering more information.
Friends insist Danny never associated with gangs and never talked about problems back in El Salvador. Then again, Danny rarely spoke about anything personal.
Danny was always cheerful, but he was a very reserved and private person, according to one of his best friends, a fellow Salvadoran immigrant. “Once he told me he missed picking mangoes in El Salvador, but never said much else about home," she said. "Mostly he sat and listened, but didn’t talk much.” She thinks whatever problems Danny had with the MS-13 must have started in Sterling, but she says "if he knew something, he didn't say."
Danny’s family—he lived with his aunt, uncle and cousins—isn’t keen to discuss the matter either. The house where he lived recently installed a closed-circuit security camera outside the front door, and no family member would answer my requests for an interview. When I knocked on their front door last week, all the shutters and blinds were pulled tight, even though the family's car was in the driveway.
Attempts to contact Danny's friends and family in his hometown of Ilobasco, 30 miles outside San Salvador, where his body was repatriated and buried last week, were also unsuccessful. The town is controlled jointly by the MS-13 and Barrio 18, making it hard to know which gang—if any—he might have had contact with back home.
If it turns out that Danny’s murder was gang related, the threat of further retaliation in Sterling becomes real. “I won’t talk about hypotheticals…but I will tell you that in the gang culture reprisals are a fact of life,” Sgt. Tucker said. “It’s common in all gang culture, and we are not immune to that.”
For a community that has worked hard to welcome its Central American immigrant population and keep the gang problem under wraps for the past 20 years, the potential threat of an escalation of violence is a monster that no one wants to stir.
A town in transition
Home to some 30,000 people, Sterling is a proud community with a notably strong commitment to its public school system. The northern Virginia town, part of Loudoun County, was originally founded as a leafy D.C. suburb dotted with comfortable middle class homes overlooking tidy, undulating lawns. It’s the type of place where moms jog behind strollers, men strike up friendly conversations about how much the Redskins suck, and strangers still greet each other with an affable hello.
Actually, most strangers greet each other with “hola.” In the past 20 years, Sterling’s school enrollment has gone from mostly white to mostly Latino—or, more precisely, mostly Salvadoran.
With gang violence in El Salvador reaching unprecedented levels (907 homicides in August alone), the immigration trends that are already changing the face of Sterling aren’t likely to reverse in the years ahead.
Related: El Salvador is in serious trouble
Danny was one of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors who arrived at the U.S. border in late 2013. After being detained and processed by U.S. Immigration Services, Danny was placed in the home of his aunt and uncle in Sterling, where he enrolled in Park View High in January 2014, halfway through the school year.
Unsurprisingly, Danny gravitated quickly toward the other Salvadoran kids who spoke his language. And he had a lot of friends to choose from. Park View’s freshmen class last year swelled from 360 students at the beginning of the school year to 430 by June. School administrators say that 20 percent jump in class size was due mostly to the continuous arrival of so-called “border kids.”
Park View’s student body is now majority Latino, marking a dramatic demographic shift from the early 1980s, when nearly every face in the class picture was white.
Neighboring Dominion High School, located two miles away, has experienced a similar shift, growing from 1,400 students to 1,500— an increase fueled mostly by the arrival of Central Americans.
Despite the rapidly transitioning community, Sterling and Loudoun County have always been open-armed communities that seem to embrace their diversity as well as anyone might expect. As one long-time resident told me, Sterling takes pride in its tradition as a safe haven for foreign refugees, and the schools go out of their way to accommodate new arrivals and include them in the school activities. The Salvadorans I talked to said they felt safe and welcomed in Sterling.
Park View’s varsity soccer team has certainly benefitted from the deepening talent pool; the coach told me his team’s roster is nearly 80 percent Salvadorans, the best of whom I saw running circles around the lesser players, scoring at will.
Spanish is already the first language on the soccer field, and it's giving English a run for its money in the school’s hallways as well. One in three students struggle to speak English as a distant second language. Overall, it’s a diversity that the schools seem to take great joy in.
“Our schools are the real world—they represent the population of northern Virginia,” Park View High School Principal Kirk Dolson told me. “Our kids graduate with a diverse class, and when they go on to college in Virginia Tech or UVA they don’t experience culture shock that some other students do.”
But the real world comes with real world problems. And for Sterling and its neighboring communities, that means contending with Salvadoran gangs that are known to recruit in the high school, middle school, and in the nearby shopping center.
The Loudoun County school board insists it has the issue under control with constant surveillance. Students are banned from wearing gang colors to school, faculty are on the lookout for gang tags in the bathrooms, and a security officer is constantly monitoring cameras for gang signs and other suspicious activity or loitering outside school.
But the gangs are there.
“There is always [gang] recruitment going on the schools. The MS is in schools, 18 Street is in schools, and so are the Bloods and Crips,” Sgt. Tucker said. “They are always recruiting; they always want to add to their numbers. That’s a nationwide universal truth. And it’s true here.”
Gangs from a small country with a big global reach
The MS-13 and Barrio 18 are immigrant gangs born on the streets of Los Angeles, and spread to Central America when gangbangers were collared and deported throughout the 1990s.
Since then, their proliferation throughout Central America, the U.S., and parts of Europe has been nothing less than spectacular.
Today, the MS-13 alone operates in at least 42 states, plus Washington, D.C., according to the FBI. The Salvatrucha has an estimated 6,000-10,000 members in the United States, mostly in places where the Salvadoran immigrant population is the densest.
In Loudoun County, MS-13 membership is estimated to be somewhere around 100 to 200 or more, according to the sheriff’s department. It dwarfs Barrio 18, which has been active in Loudoun County much longer. Some fear the gang numbers are starting to grow again, despite Sheriff Mike Chapman's claim that his county has experienced a sharp "mark down in gang activity in recent years" and says overall violent crime stats are down. Perceptions of gang violence has become a wedge issue in Chapman's bid to get re-elected as sheriff next month.
Those who study the gang activity on a federal level say expansionism is a main goal for both the MS-13 and Barrio 18.
“The gangs' objective is to expand out of El Salvador and worldwide,” says Julian Igualada, supervisory special agent for the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division in San Salvador. One way the gangs do that is by recruiting in U.S. schools, mainly by targeting recently arrived Central American immigrants.
Gang expert Richard Baer, of the FBI’s International Operations Division, says recently arrived Salvadoran immigrants are vulnerable prey to gang recruiters. Many of the newly enrolled students don’t speak English, don’t know other kids in school, and don’t have a solid family structure at home, he said. Students affiliated with gangs make their approach slowly to gain trust and feel out the new arrivals, offering parties, money, drugs and camaraderie. The gangs even run background checks with MS-13 or 18 leadership back in El Salvador to determine whether the newcomer has any prior affiliation, Baer said.
That’s when recruitment goes smoothly. Other times the first encounter is swift and violent. New students have been known to get attacked on the spot if they unknowingly reveal to gangbangers that they’re from a neighborhood in El Salvador controlled by a rival gang.
And you thought your first day of school was tough.
In other cases, it’s the new students who are recruiting for the gangs. Many young Salvadorans come to the U.S. trying to flee gang violence, but a small number come trying to start it. The FBI says the gangs in El Salvador occasionally dispatch young gang members on “missions” to the U.S. to help expand their group's reach and influence, settle an old score, or whip a local gang into shape. In those instances, the gang's emissaries are sometimes minors, since El Salvador doesn’t keep criminal records for anyone under 18, making it easier for young teens to slip across the border undetected and unsuspected.
The FBI says it doesn't want to overstate the number of gangbanger errand boys sent to the U.S., but they insist it is happening. Most young immigrants, however, are just trying to make a better life for themselves in the U.S. by reuniting with family and escaping violence back in El Salvador, the agents say.
Keeping U.S. schools safe
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office hopes the tragedy of Danny Centeno’s murder is—in the words of department spokesman Capt. Greg Brown—“an opportunity born out of tragedy to strengthen the bonds between the community and the sheriff’s office” and remind citizens of the importance of reporting any and all “suspicious activities.”
But the Loudoun County public schools are the real first line of defense in detecting and deterring gang proliferation.
The schools themselves are built with a security infrastructure that may seem a touch Orwellian to anyone who graduated from a suburban high school in the previous century. There are 40 to 60 cameras pointing at everything except the toilets, panic buttons that lock all the doors, “magic doors” that lead to safe rooms, keycard locks on all exterior doors, and an integrated 911 public safety alert system — security measures that stem from nationwide concerns about gun violence and mass shootings.
More importantly, the Park View High School staff—especially those working in the English as a second language department— are the best source of human intelligence in the community, according to school administrators.
Suzanne Devlin, supervisor for safety and security in the Loudoun County Public Schools, says the focus on prevention and intervention has helped prevent several major security incidents over the years related to gangs and mental health issues. “The dangers that lurk for our kids are not in the schools, but outside,” Dominion High School Principal John Brewer told me. “We’re not living in fear.”
But perhaps the most important job the schools do to deter gang activity is to help immigrant students assimilate into the community and acculturate to a new life in the U.S. “The schools are the only institution that helps kids become Americans,” said Devlin.
“If we lose the schools, we lose America,” she said. “If we lose safety in the schools, we lose the country.”