In the apartment complex where relatives of gang murder
victim Olivia Mendoza continue to mourn, a 17-year-old boy in loose
pants cursed freely last week and recalled the street fights he has
so far won.
The teen with broad shoulders and closely cut
hair is not a gang member. But he says he has twice battled them
with his fists -- once at the age of 15 and again last year -- when
they attempted to violently recruit him. He swears in frustration,
because no matter how bravely he resists his tormentors they persist
with force and psychological ploys.
constantly happens," the 17-year-old who asked that his name be
withheld for safety reasons, said Thursday of the confrontations. "I
be getting mad. It's not right. I just tell them to
"Then they try to tell you 'If you join, we'll be a
family,'" he said at the complex in Hempstead. "I was just like
'It's all . It's not true.'"
Long before Tuesday's arrest of
six suspected MS-13 leaders in the slayings of alleged associates
Genaro Venegas and Olivia Mendoza, pockets of the Nassau and Suffolk
communities where the victims resided have struggled with a growing
specter of gangs.
Though gang violence has surfaced in
affluent communities on Long Island with Mendoza's body discovered
in Old Westbury and a man walking home from a Lynbrook train station
killed last September, police say it disproportionately besets
working class neighborhoods such as Hempstead, Uniondale, Roosevelt,
Brentwood and Central Islip.
Nassau County Police Det. Sgt.
Gregory Quinn, deputy commander of the Special Intelligence Squad,
estimated recently that some 2,000 to 3,000 gang members reside in
the county, compared to a handful that first became active in the
Suffolk police said because of the mercurial
nature of gang membership they no longer formally estimate numbers.
But retired Suffolk County Police Det. Wes Daily said he officially
estimated in 2002 that there were 1,500 gang members in the
jurisdiction, up from the 200 he estimated as recently as 1997.
Daily, a former head of the Criminal Intelligence Section who
continues to lecture nationally on gangs, said the number could be
above 2,000 today.
Daily said mere teens often bear the brunt
of gang aggression near buildings like the 17-year-old's apartment
complex, which has graffiti scrawled on its entrance and lies only a
few blocks from known hangouts of gang rivals. And though the
majority of working-class neighborhoods remain disconnected from
such gang epicenters, families must sometimes consider what types of
clothing their children can wear and how to react when gang members
cross their path.
"If you don't mess with them, I don't think
they are going to hurt you," Brentwood restaurant worker Mercedes
Avelar, 28, said Thursday, illustrating the distance some residents
must keep between themselves and gangs.
The same day, a
merchant on Suffolk Avenue in Central Islip said that area gangs are
so strong that he did not want his name to be used for fear of
He has installed surveillance cameras and extra
locks on the doors of his shop to prevent break-ins from MS-13
members who used to hang out nearby before a police crackdown early
in the year. But he could not lock out the gang presence in his
daughter's place of learning, Central Islip High School, where she
can no longer wear blue outfits because that is a gang color that
could provoke an attack.
"She told me, 'Daddy, we can't wear
blue anymore,'" the merchant said. "They intimidate the children ...
It's getting to be like Los Angeles."
Brentwood, taxi driver Jose Rivera, 38, said gangs are "a threat for
people in general."
He said he refuses to let his children,
ages 12 and 8, leave the house after school unless he or his wife
goes with them. With gangs, life in some parts of Brentwood has
deteriorated so much he is thinking about moving back to his
homeland of El Salvador.
"The police have to use an iron
fist" with the gangs, Rivera said in Spanish. "Gangs should not
Anti-gang squads created
To relieve the
burdened communities, law enforcement officials have formed
anti-gang squads like the federal, state, local task force that on
Tuesday arrested six suspected MS-13 members in the murders of
Mendoza, 16 and Venegas, 24. Nine others were rounded up on firearms
and conspiracy to commit assault charges.
In 2002, Suffolk
County District Attorney Thomas Spota created an anti-gang unit of
seven assistant district attorneys that prosecute gang crimes full
And through negotiations with State Assemb. Phil Ramos,
the head of El Salvador's national police, is scheduled to arrive on
Oct. 25 to sign an agreement with Suffolk police that would allow
the two entities to share intelligence databases, training and other
information on gangs. Ramos said Thursday that part of the plan is
to alert Salvadoran officials when suspected gang members are
deported, and permit Salvadoran authorities to meet suspected gang
members at airports to obtain intelligence.
criminal conspiracy charges have been criticized by some civil
libertarians because they allow officers to arrest individuals not
for the commission of a specific crime, but for association with a
gang that is sometimes proved by circumstantial evidence like
tattoos and bandanas of a certain color. Get-tough prosecution is
also questioned because critics say prison time hardens gang members
who are then released as street soldiers with ties to the
ultra-violent gang cells that dominate life behind bars.
deportation tactic is also challenged because it has exported the
gang menace to poor nations like El Salvador and has served as a
virtual death sentence for even low-level gang associates and
reformed members. Right-wing death squads have undertaken a social
cleansing against MS-13 since its suspected members started arriving
from the United States in criminal deportations that began about a
Sergio Argueta, a former gang member who founded
the Hempstead organization STRONG Youth Inc. to provide youth
alteratives to gangs, said while he believes the killers of Venegas
and Mendoza should pay their debts to society, there are too few
efforts that are not law enforcement based.
A strategy that
remains largely unexplored in neighborhoods challenged by gangs is
intervention, he said, which provides counseling, education and job
placement not only to youth at risk of joining gangs, but their
The number of gang members is alarming not only in
its sharp increase despite law enforcement efforts, he added, but
because Long Island gangs are beginning to take on generational
legacies that once existed only in American cities.
kids are having kids at 14 and 15 years old, and the babies are
growing up in that culture," Argueta said during a recent interview.
"We're at a crossroads right now and we have to decide which way
we're going to go. Are we going to address the issue in a way where
we can actually reduce the gang violence?"
Argueta formed his
group around 2000, after the gang-related deaths of friends. One of
them was Eduardo Arguello, who died in 1995 from the bullet wounds
he received when he was mistaken for a member of the gang to which
Argueta not only belonged but had led into battle.
police urge help from other segments of the community in their
campaign against gangs.
"The answer to this situation is not
the police," Det. Lt. James Rooney, commanding officer of the
Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Section, said in a recent
interview. "It has to be an entire effort, there must be social,
political and religious influences. We're the solvers of last
Too much for one officer
In answer to
Rooney's and Argueta's calls, Suffolk County employs one
overburdened probation officer to council school children about the
dangers of gang involvement.
"I have to turn people away a
lot. I just don't have the time to go out there and do it," the
officer lamented recently, requesting that she only be identified as
Jill because of the dangerous nature of her work. "We need places
for them to go after school, until 11 o'clock at night, that are
open everyday. Teach them some trades."
In April, Nassau
County funded a half-million dollar grant devoted to gang
intervention, and counts Argueta and several newly trained
nonprofits as recipients. George Siberón, the executive director of
the Nassau County Youth Board that distributed the money, said he
considers the method so vital that he has already begun allocating
$500,000 more for next year's budget. He is also petitioning state
officials for matching dollars.
Meanwhile, Pepe Smith, 28, of
Hempstead, said Wednesday that her life had been largely untouched
by gangs until June, when she sprained her ankle walking down the
steps of her home and went to an area emergency room. There, she
waited for her treatment with young men, about 19, and 17, who had
been attacked by gang members. One bled from a gash to his forehead
and another had cuts on his torso through a ripped shirt.
was just walking with his girlfriend," Smith said of the boy with
the gash, shaking her head.
Smith said she is grateful for
law enforcement efforts that make the most dangerous gang members
pay for their crimes. She added that a varied approach could help
the community even more.
"They need somebody to point them in
the right direction," Smith said of gang members. "They need
somebody that's from that type of lifestyle to set them straight."