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.
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