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Monserrate, a former New York police officer, agreed, saying gang activity has become "more virulent." He doubts having more police will solve the problem, without adding programs to provide young people with alternatives. "A lot more cops, a gang unit, is it enough? No, we still need more," he said.
Gangs like M18 and MS13 are relatively new to New York, having formed after refugees from the Salvadoran civil war began to arrive 20 years ago. Other gangs, like the Vatos Locos, Traviesos, and Vagos are even newer, born as recently arrived Mexicans responded to harassment from older gangs such as the Bloods, Latin Kings, and Nietas. With time, the immigrants' street-corner crews have grown larger, more numerous, and more violent.
Jailing and deporting gang members may serve only to exacerbate the problem, said Barnard professor Robert Smith, who studies the transnationalization of Mexican gangs in his upcoming book, Mexican New York. "These deported gangsters continue their activities in their countries of origin, including their links to partners in the U.S., and later return to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants," he said.
In El Salvador, for example, the penalties for gang affiliation are so harsh that deportees end up driven north again. And paramilitary groups left over from the country's civil war in the 1980s are known to hunt gang members down and kill them.
Lino sees only one solution to the gang problem spreading across Queens and Long Island. "Use others who've gotten out to come back and show the way out," he said. A few of the small band of volunteers in red berets and jackets are former gang members, and Curtis Sliwa, the founder and director of the Guardian Angels, has said prevention and outreach will be a priority here. The two-month-old Queens chapter receives no funding from the city and consists of 20 volunteers, many just past the minimum age of 17. Despite their small numbers and few resources, the Angels say they plan to take a new approach to the gang problem by building a close relationship to the newly arrived Latin American immigrants who make up the majority of residents in Corona and Jackson Heights.
The Guardian Angels began as the Rock Brigade in 1976, picking up unsightly rocks and trash in the streets of the Bronx. They soon expanded to patrolling dangerous streets and subway lines, and as their membership grew, so did criticism of their aggressive tactics. Many Queens residents have been hesitant to welcome the Angels. Although the newest chapter has recruited a dozen local volunteers, only one is Mexican and there are no Salvadorans.
Skeptical about the effectiveness of hard-nosed proposals to crack down on gang activity, Freire also expressed reservations about the Angels' methods in Queens. "They don't have a good reputation in the rest of the city," he said. "They're better than nothing, but we don't want them to come out like vigilantes."