The shouts of young men wrestling one another to the ground echoed from the Guardian Angels' headquarters in Corona, Queens, a cavernous room they share with the Dominican Revolutionary Party. As their first martial arts training ended, the volunteer crime-fighters put on red silk jackets and red berets and headed out into the night. José Gonzalez, 27, a 10-year veteran of the Guardian Angels, led the patrol, pausing at a wall covered in cryptic graffiti.
"And Corona doesn't have a gang problem," he said sarcastically, reeling off the names of the Salvadoran and Mexican gangs that have left their marks on the side of the buildingVatos Locos, M18, CNS. The patrol marched on, with their fists and walkie-talkies as protection.
Called in by Assemblyman José Peralta, the controversial Guardian Angels are one part of the community's response to high levels of gang-related violence. On January 12, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly renewed a more official effort, Operation Impact, which seeks to place extra cops in the city's more dangerous precincts. The program's debut last year added dozens of cops to this part of the borough, but local officials and residents say gang violence has continued to rise. A series of gang-related assaults and a high-profile rape caused Peralta to call in the Guardian Angels in November.
Complaints that Operation Impact did not fix the gang problem have not fazed Bloomberg and Kelly. At their press conference, they cited statistics across northern Queens that show reported crime falling 31.6 percent last year. Thus comes "Operation Impact II," which will bring the total of new officers assigned to the area to 90.
New York City is not alone in its need to do something about gangs, nor in its police-centered approach. The names of gangs sprayed on walls throughout Queens have also been sighted across the county line in Nassau, where several Central American immigrant communities have emerged among Long Island's white middle-class majority. In contrast to the small force of rookie officers and volunteer Angels taking on the Queens gangs, Long Island's problem may soon be handed over to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Last month, Senator Charles Schumer announced his support of the $463 million Criminal Street Gang Abatement Act. Schumer is pushing for Long Island to be designated as a "high-intensity interstate gang area," entitling the region to an as yet unspecified share of $60 million the law would set aside each year for these areas. It would also create a new anti-gang task force that would include members of federal law enforcement agencies.
In 2002, Queens County reported almost twice as many adult arrests for violent felony offenses as Nassau and Suffolk counties combined, according to the State Division of Criminal Justice. Schumer, however, citing 100 gang-related arrests a month, said Nassau and Suffolk merited the federal attention. His bill provides another $37.5 million for community programs and prevention efforts. But it focuses on strengthening punishments, including trying 16-year-olds as adults and pushing for the death penalty more often.
On Long Island, community activists such as former gang member Julio Cañas are criticizing Schumer's hard-nosed approach. His bright smile a strange accessory to his orange jumpsuit, Cañas, 34, greets his visitors cheerfully in the dreary Nassau County jail. The former member of the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) recounts his decision to leave the gang he joined as a child in El Salvador and become a labor organizer with the Workplace Project, a center that serves undocumented day laborers on Long Island.
"I found a new fight that wasn't with guns, but with books and the mind," he said. Before his arrest in July on charges for entering the country illegally nine years ago, he'd begun a new program to reach out to helping gang members find jobs, stay in school, and eventually leave the gang. Since he went to jail, Cañas says, most of the people he tried to help have been arrested and many deported back to El Salvador.
Aby Lino, 30, a Salvadoran youth counselor at a Hempstead hospital, knows many former and current gang members, including Cañas. He is convinced that the punitive measures of the Criminal Street Gang Abatement Act will fail. "Politicians can't relate to a lot of these kids. They don't understand where they are coming from. All they bring to the table is prison," Lino said. "You send those kids to jail and they only become more violent when they get out."
Critics of Operation Impact have made the same arguments. According to some neighborhood residents and elected officials, Operation Impact's effects have been mixed at best. Over the past 28 days, there were 23 assaults in the 110th Precinct, compared to 31 during the same period last year. Robberies went up, with 52 over the last month and 42 during the same period last year.
Diego Freire, a lifelong resident of Corona and a community liaison for Councilmember Hiram Monserrate, believes that the number of actual crimes is much higher in Queens, but that many victims are undocumented immigrants afraid to contact police. "The prey of a lot of these gangs is their own community," he said. "The problem is, they get assaulted and robbed, and they don't report it."
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.