FAIRFAX, Va. - All eyes are on Virginia's race for governor and the topic dominating the debate is who can better handle the growing MS-13 gang problem in the commonwealth.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie says there are more than 2,000 MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County alone. If so, that would mean there could be more gang members in Fairfax County than police officers. However, police say the number of MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County is closer to 1,400.
Even so, the county insists they are ahead of the problem that is front and center for many Virginia voters.
Ed Ryan is the Fairfax County gang prevention coordinator. He is also one of five assigned to the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. He is tasked with helping kids who are in gangs to get them out and preventing them from joining the gangs.
It is just one of a multi-strategy plan to curb MS-13's influence in Fairfax County and across Northern Virginia.
Seventy percent of the gang activity in Fairfax County is reportedly associated with MS-13. Compared to years past, Ryan says he is now giving more presentations and training about gangs at schools, and the audience is much younger.
"It used to be when I first started in this position, a lot of my presentations were geared at high schools, to high school parents, to high school counselors and teachers, but now I find myself in middle schools and elementary schools as well," Ryan said. "If the opportunity became available to us that we could hire more counselors and workers to work with at risk kids, we would certainly welcome that and welcome that opportunity. There are certainly things we could do with funding, whether that's increase the amount of counselors who work with at-risk kids or just in general be able to boost and improve our prevention and intervention programs."
Keeping up with MS-13's membership number in the county can be challenging since gang members are often transient. Police say there are 80 identified gangs in Fairfax County alone. At any given time, about 30 of them are active on the streets.