This is what it looks like.
A 13-year-old boy steels himself for a beating from about a dozen other boys—also teenagers, 13, 14, 15, maybe a little bit older—in a vacant lot behind an abandoned building. The group circles around the boy, and the circle closes around him. Then the blows begin. He’s down after the first shot to the face and stays in a defensive position at the bottom of this pile. The pummeling continues for another five minutes. Five minutes. At the bottom of a pile. The sunlight blocked out by bodies. If there’s any plus side, it’s that there are so many boys involved in the attack that not all of the punches and kicks are landed. Enough are. One kick breaks his nose. Another breaks a rib. Then another rib. Five minutes. It seems to last a lifetime.
When his time is up, the circle backs away. The boy is covered in blood, he has suffered numerous injuries, but he can stand up. And when he does, he is congratulated. This is an initiation, a rite of passage called being “jumped in,” and he is now a member of the gang—almost.
Next he must show his allegiance by committing a crime—usually a violent act against a rival gang—and his willingness to wind up wounded, jailed or dead for his gang. As horrific as this sounds, at least he’s not one of the girls, who are “sexed in,” or gang raped, where five or more male members of the gang have their way with her, one after the other, a process that takes a lot longer than a mere five minutes. No thought is given to getting the girl pregnant, or to what sexually transmitted diseases might be contracted, not to mention the injuries that will be suffered during the ritual.
This is what it looks like.
THE GANG’S ALL HERE
All it took was several teenagers flashing gang signs, as hundreds of high school students were finishing their summer-school classes, to initiate The Battle Royale involving more than a dozen people on a recent hot and sticky Tuesday morning. The shady side streets—the type where homeowners don’t remove the graffiti on their fences because to do so invites gang retaliation—turned into all-out chaos that sucked in innocent bystanders as it twisted down the street like a pack of Tasmanian Devils, even after police arrived. Blood was splashed on the ground as three teens were stabbed and a fourth was bashed in the head with a blunt object. Once the dust settled, three suspected gang members—an 18-year-old and two 15-year-olds—were jailed on gang assault charges.
This melee broke out on July 14 in front of Brentwood High School, in the dead center of suburbia, and could not have provided a clearer reminder that the gangs of Long Island are still dedicated to painting the town red with each other’s blood—and some innocent victims’ too.
Some of the brawlers are believed to have been members of the Bloods, a predominantly African-American gang that is one of LI’s largest, and Mara Salvatrucha, a Hispanic gang better known as MS-13 and also one of the region’s most prevalent—not to mention most violent. They have been at war here for so long that it may never be known what started it all (Suffolk police declined to comment on the case). But with newer, younger members recruited all the time, this may not have been retaliation, but just “rec,” as in recreation—kids with something to prove looking for a fight.
Still, when gang tensions spark a brawl in the mean streets of Brentwood, nobody bats an eye. It was the discovery of 15-year-old Eber Lopez’s badly decomposed body, which was buried in a wooded area near the Long Island Expressway in Farmingville, that raised eyebrows. The Guatemalan immigrant, who police do not believe was in a gang, worked at a Cutchogue deli and was last seen at a christening in his hometown of Greenport, where witnesses said he was abducted by gang members on June 6 before he was fatally shot. His body, found 11 days after his disappearance, was identified two days after the Brentwood fracas.
Most consider the North Fork synonymous with wineries, not gang-motivated murder. But the issue affects plenty more otherwise-sleepy suburbs nationwide. It requires a three-pronged approach that includes carefully coordinated law enforcement, reforming ex-gang members and educating both kids and their parents. From the feds down to the middle schools where gangs recruit new members, there is a call to arms to fight back against those who terrorize communities from the Town of Southold to the city line.
Gang violence is on the rise across Long Island, admits at least one top elected official, and law enforcement efforts to rein in its culture can best be described as a sub-war in itself, similar to the carnival game Whack-A-Mole. There’s never a shortage of work. For those trapped in the culture’s web—a net cast even for elementary schoolers—life can be a seemingly endless cycle of tragedy, despair and anguish, with an untold number of victims.
“You’re starting to see an uptick in gang violence,” due in part to the recession, says Mark Lesko, the newly elected Brookhaven town supervisor and a former federal prosecutor who put away some of LI’s most notorious gangsters using the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws that were originally used against the mob.
With the poor getting poorer thanks to increasing unemployment, more are turning to gangs, Lesko says. This, combined with the fact that some of LI’s OGs (original gangsters) are starting to finish prison sentences earned after round-ups nearly a decade ago, is a dangerous mix, he adds. A new generation of gang bangers being led by those who have been networking and learning how to be better criminals from other gang members in prison is an unnerving thought indeed for a region that is home to an estimated 3,000-5,000 gang members.
But there is good news: The intelligence sharing initiatives and inter-agency anti-gang enforcement coordination in particular, that became a priority over the last decade, builds on past successes. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) leads the fight with its Long Island Gang Task Force, Nassau and Suffolk police each have teams dedicated to disseminating gang tracking info to beat cops, and the district attorneys in each county prioritize gang cases. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which covers LI, is currently prosecuting top MS-13 members caught in past dragnets. Investigators in the jails provide critical intel to those on the outside. And any day now a parade of bad guys will be publicized in the latest Operation FALCON (an acronym for Federal And Local Cops Organized Nationally), an annual roundup of the worst fugitives spearheaded by the U.S. Marshals.
Despite these efforts, the gang wars rage on, often in obscurity.
“I think a lot of people downplay the gang role in just about every crime because they don’t want the public to believe that we have a gang problem,” says Robert Hart, the former head of the FBI’s local gang task force who retired last November and started his own private investigation firm, Pathfinder Consultants International.
LI’s task force is one of 150 just like it across the U.S., fighting against 20,000 gangs with at least 1 million total members who commit up to 80 percent of all crimes in certain areas, according to the FBI’s 2009 Gang Threat Assessment. Guns, prostitution, muggings, robberies, auto thefts, burglaries, home invasions—these are equal-opportunity offenders, although most start out small, with assaults and drug dealing. Analysts found suburban communities are increasingly becoming a gangster’s paradise.
“There’s a presence, and as long as there’s a presence, you’re going to get the unfavorable characteristics that go along with that,” such as drug dealing, human trafficking and violence, Hart says. That’s because LI’s gang problem, like elsewhere, has roots in social ills that have no signs of going away.
“You can’t say that because you live in a homogenous area that you will never confront a gang member.”
—ROBERT HART, THE FORMER LEADER OF THE FBI’S GANG TASK FORCE
IT’S WAR OUT THERE
Between the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Salvadorans With Pride, Netas, Hell’s Angels, Pagans, 18th Street, stray homegrown gangs and the nation’s third largest concentration of MS-13 outside of Los Angeles and Virginia (a troubling estimation considering how much more organized and militaristic this gang is), authorities have their hands full when it comes to busting street gangs. Each has their own subtle color-coordinated dress code, hand signals and constantly changing slang designed to throw off investigators.
“We don’t have the resources to attack everyone as a whole, so we go after the worst of the worst,” says Michael Ferrandino, the supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI’s LI gang task force who took over after Hart. “It’s almost like pulling weeds in a garden.” But his line of work is a lot more dangerous than gardening.
There have been repeated attempts by gang members to track down local gang investigators, including those on the task force. In both Hempstead and Huntington, gangsters who staked out police stationhouses were arrested while writing down the license plate numbers on officers’ personal cars. One gang detective who asked that his name not be used recalled meeting eyes with a gang member he had investigated while he was Christmas shopping with his family at the mall. Another reportedly had a landscaper covered in MS-13 tattoos show up at his house to work.
Most local sets—gang lingo for a local faction of a larger group—of Bloods and Crips are generally disorganized and often at war with one another, which is the type of gang-on-gang violence that makes up most flare-ups. But MS-13 poses a different kind of threat.
“A lot of them have legitimate jobs by day,” bringing new meaning to the term weekend warrior, says Ray Tariche, an FBI agent on the task force who is one of the agency’s top MS-13 experts. “They don’t rely on the gang-illicit activities to fund themselves” in our area, unlike in Los Angeles where MS-13 members are full-time gangsters, he says.
They can have jobs as bus boys, construction workers and landscapers to fund themselves in between charging “rent” from local shopkeepers, similar to how the Mafia offers “protection” for a fee. MS-13, which has ties to El Salvador but includes other Central American territories, is also “heavily involved in gun trafficking and more and more [has] become involved in human trafficking,” says Tariche. “They’re handling the whole pipeline from El Salvador, through Mexico to the U.S.” where illegal immigrants pay at each leg of the trip for a total cost of almost $8,000.
At that rate, a van full of 25 immigrants smuggled into the country can earn the gang $200,000 at a time, although the recession has had its affect on this trade as well. And with so much at stake, top MS-13 leaders have visited LI when the local cliques—MS-13’s word for set—are not meeting expectations.
This is not a gang that anti-gang advocates have luck getting people out of, either. Discipline, while a facet of all gangs, is sometimes deadly within MS-13. Two suspected informants were executed in Old Westbury and Bethpage in 2004.
Police note that these two victims were not actually informants. And for those that do cooperate with investigators, there are protections in place. Federal prosecutors have the witness relocation program for those cases that rise to that level, and for the ones that the district attorneys prosecute, there are relocation programs as well.
“We keep our end of the bargain so that people know that they can trust us,” says Ed Heilig, bureau chief of the special investigations bureau with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office. Nassau had to use their version of the program in a case where a family’s house was shot up because one of the kids living there was seen talking to a police officer.
Those who are MS-13 informants have testified in court that they joined only to avoid beatings from the gang and its rivals, then have to commit violence to show their dedication and wind up wounded, jailed or dead for the gang—same as most any gang. That ethos is symbolized in a gang marking made up of three cigarette burns in the form of a triangle on a member’s skin.
Disturbing as that may be, Tariche cautions against painting a negative stereotype of the entire immigrant community while discussing MS-13’s heinous history. “It’s a minority of the people, just like in every other ethnic group, that commits crime,” he says, adding that “99.9 percent” come here to work, not to become criminals. And since MS-13 has been such a priority and was disrupted by previous crackdowns, other gangs moved in to fill the void.
And so the hits just keep on coming. Like in the case of the murdered Greenport teen, the immigrant and minority communities are often caught in the crosshairs of gang violence.
TAKING BACK THE STREETS
Gang members operate somewhat similar to La Cosa Nostra, or the traditional Mafia, in their obsession with respect and perceived disrespect, potentially triggering violence. They also similarly respond to law enforcement techniques and adapt their plans to avoid detection, like how some street gangs are said to be less blatant about their colors. But the biggest commonality is their effectiveness in utilizing intimidation, which is not surprising since it is common knowledge that gang initiations often involve random acts of violence.
That’s why investigating gangs is so tricky, because police work tirelessly to get around the “stop snitching” mentality in neighborhoods where gangs are omnipresent and can make a suspected informant’s life a living hell. Mistrust of police is also a big factor.
“We deal with many cases where some of the members of the community are fearful of reporting criminality to the police because they’re afraid of being deported,” says Detective Lt. John Azzata, commanding officer of the Homicide Squad in Nassau. The unit is still looking for the suspected MS-13 member who fatally stabbed 15-year-old Michael Alguera—who was not in a gang—in the abdomen at the Hempstead High School handball courts in January, 2008. This life was cut short for $20, a cell phone, an MP3 player and a gold chain.
“Until we can develop a stronger trust, we’re going to have this obstacle,” says Azzata. In the meantime, the police continue to perfect their gang intelligence-gathering and -dissemination techniques.
A recent tour of the intelligence center for Nassau police reveals a touch-screen computer, same as those in the department’s eight precincts, which allows officers to track gang members by sets and displays their known associates. Inside the office, dubbed the Lead Generation Center, investigators from about a dozen federal, state and local law enforcement agencies make sure everyone is on the same page.
Down the hall is the Special Investigations Squad, a unit made up of both counter-terrorism and anti-gang detectives that maintain the gang member database and put out a daily report on all gang activity in the county. These are the guys who interrogate every gangster who is arrested, regardless of what the charges are.
“Sometimes they’re not so free to talk about their own gang, but they’re very free to tell us about other gangs,” says Detective Lt. Andrew Mulrain, commanding officer of the squad. The coordination has resulted in more effective investigations than in years past, he adds.
“We were arresting gang members because they’re not really master criminals, but we were arresting them as individuals” and not usually taking down the entire gang prior to the consolidation of gang intelligence, Mulrain says. Gang members who show off their hand signals and weapons on their Facebook and MySpace pages also make for a treasure trove of leads which have helped solve murders in the past.
Gang investigators with Suffolk police have a similar operation in some regards, but there are big differences in the way they are set up compared to Nassau. For one, Suffolk police do not have detectives assigned to the FBI’s gang task force (both have FBI agents in their intel centers). Also, the Criminal Intelligence Section maintains control over the gang member database and instead of one centralized gang squad, there are gang detectives placed in each of the seven precincts. Then there is the Patrol Special Operations Team (PSOT) that focuses on one or two precincts at a time, currently the 1st and 3rd Precincts, and moves around Suffolk to quell gang violence flare-ups when they arise.
Here, too, they are up against the self-destructive code of the streets.
“They can have an arch enemy who shot them in the stomach and they won’t press charges,” says Detective Lt. James Hickey, commanding officer of the Criminal Intelligence Section, referring to wounded gang members who won’t tell cops who shot them. Such is a common occurrence in gang-on-gang crimes.
“When these groups get into a conflict, it’ll go back and forth, back and forth,” says Gerard Gigante, deputy inspector in charge of the PSOT. The best bet is quashing the beef and preventing any violence by rounding up the suspects before it turns into an all-out bloodbath.
“You can’t always prevent the first occurrence, but you can try and prevent the retaliatory hits,” Hickey says.
By all accounts, the most invaluable resource—aside from the threat of federal prison under RICO—is the intelligence gathered in the Nassau and Suffolk jails. Like the detectives on the street, gang unit investigators in the detention centers interview every suspected gang member that comes in the door. And since inmates are a captive audience, these sleuths have a lot more time to do it.
“Very few of them tell you everything that they know and we don’t tell them everything we know,” says Deputy Sherriff Steve Lundquist, Sgt. Investigator for the Gang Intelligence Unit within the jails in Riverhead and Yaphank, where he estimates there are about 250 gang members out of approximately 1,500 inmates. Nassau jail has a similar unit and each is mission critical, considering the fact that “gangs are always evolving,” he says.
And in jail, they are constantly recruiting too. Aside from having to separate gang members at war with one another, Lundquist also sees inmates join gangs behind bars for the sake of survival.
“A lot of guys that come to jail, they leave worse,” he says. Think of it as school for crooks, a place where a gangster’s rep can be forged, which is why it doesn’t make for much of a deterrent. State prison, for those sentenced to more than a year, can be thought of more like grad school. That’s what makes federal prison—some facility in Iowa packed with white supremacists—such an important tool.
LIFE AFTER GANGS
There is nothing in the gang handbook about leaving. The answers to that lay in schoolbooks.
“Everyone has this perception of drug dealers driving around in [a] Mercedes and the reality is most of the people that we’re dealing with, they live with their mother,” Mulrain says. Once these gang members grow up to be ex-cons and realize that they didn’t reach Tony Montana status, the hard part is getting them out and turning them into positive members of society.
“[The idea that] if you’re in a gang and you try and get out, that you’re going to be killed, we just haven’t seen that to be the truth,” says Mulrain, who—like many law enforcement officials—gives lectures to young gang members telling them that there is hope to turn their lives around. For those who take the authorities up on the offer, there is a laundry list of social programs that both give at-risk youth alternatives to joining gangs and parolees support in turning their lives around after they are released.
“Young people don’t truly understand the reality and devastation caused by gang membership,” says Sergio Argueta, executive director of Struggling to Reunite our New Generation (STRONG), a nonprofit gang prevention organization based out of a rented colonial house in Hempstead. Argueta should know: He formed the group nearly a decade ago when he left the gang life himself, following his friend’s murder.
The best prevention is good parenting.
“If you take the front cover of your kid’s notebook and if every time there’s a letter ‘C’ and it’s crossed out, you pretty much know that you have an issue here,” says Teresa Corrigan, bureau chief for Nassau County District Attorney’s gang unit. “You probably have a budding Blood member on your hands. Same thing if the ‘B’ is crossed out, you probably have a budding Crip member on your hands,” because crossing out those letters is one of the many subtle ways gang members disrespect their rivals.
“That parent that takes a look at their kid’s notebook can really learn a lot without being invasive or intrusive,” says Corrigan. If there is evidence, the issue can then become acceptance.
“Parents denying their children are involved in it when the facts are staring them in the face” is a common problem, says Sgt. Patrick Reilly, 3rd Precinct Crime Control unit with Suffolk police.
The gang problem is also not just a problem for certain neighborhoods.
“You can’t just say that gangs are confined to certain neighborhoods that are economically deprived,” says Hart, the task force’s former leader. “That simply isn’t true. Gang members, just like everyone else, are able to get into cars.
“You can’t say that because you live in a homogeneous area that you will never confront a gang member,” he adds. “To say that they don’t go into certain neighborhoods would be naïve.”
Considering how segregated Long Island’s poor communities are compared to the rest of the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, it is not hard to see how that misperception came to be, however.
“Seventy percent of crime comes from 11 percent of the county straight down the middle corridor,” says Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, referring to the Freeport, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Hempstead areas. “I think that in the past there was this philosophy that containment might be something that you could do, and what we’re seeing is areas [in which] you never would have thought about gangs, worrying about gangs.”
Part one of our series Gangs of Long Island.
From L.A. to L.I.: The Colors, Tags, and Origins of Long Island’s Gangs
MARA SALVATRUCHA Better known as MS-13, this street gang originated in Los Angeles and spread to the East Coast. The estimated 6,000 to 10,000 members are usually Salvadoran-Americans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans and other Central and South American immigrants. Investigators say this gang—described as Long Island’s most violent—is heavily involved in weapons and human trafficking.
CRIPS This gang, which is in 221 cities across 41 states, was once the most violent African-American gang in Nassau County. They primarily identify themselves by wearing blue and use the initials BK, for “Blood Killer.” Some of the local sets include the Rollin 60s, Folk Nation, Trey C Crips, Gun Clappin Crips and G-Stone Crips.
BLOODS This red-wearing mostly African-American gang also originated in Los Angeles, originally formed to defend against the Crips, but the New York version of the Bloods, United Blood Nation, formed in Rikers Island to protect themselves from attacks by other gangs in the ’90s. Some of the sets on LI include the Parkside Gang, the Outlaws, 59 Brim, Omega Piru and Gangsta Killa Bloods. Sports jerseys they wear include Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia Phillies and Dallas Cowboys, as the five-pointed star is one of their signs. They also frequently wear Calvin Klein apparel, as the CK can be read as “Crip Killer.”
LATIN KINGS This Hispanic street gang is mostly on the East Coast. Their colors are black and gold, and their markings include a crown.
SALVADORANS WITH PRIDE SWP is said to have begun as a civic group in Hempstead but later morphed into a street gang that is at war with MS-13.
18TH STREET This mainly Hispanic street gang formed in Los Angeles and has 30,000 to 50,000 members across 44 cities in 22 states—the nation’s largest. They are at war with MS-13 and usually wear brown or black pants with a white shirt.
HELL’S ANGELS Motorcycle gangs have a presence on Long Island as well, and this one has a clubhouse in Hempstead. It has been several years since their last documented violent clash with rivals and the group is said to raise funds through commercialization of their image.
THE PAGANS This motorcycle gang tried to make a comeback after the Hell’s Angels moved in on their turf but were unsuccessful. Investigators say there have been recent signs that the group is mounting a comeback in Suffolk.