Do you know of neighborhood services that have helped you, or people who you know, through gang issues? Leave the information in the comments or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On August 30th, Deputy Inspector Jesus Raul Pintos sat in his office. He felt good. Crime was down in the 72nd Precinct. He had only one murder on his books for 2009. One day later, he had three.
On August 31, Ismael Vargas, 16, shot and killed two men by the basketball court in Sunset Park. Since then, the South Brooklyn neighborhood has seen five murders. All of the victims have been under age 25. Police believe four of the murders have links to gangs.
“We can talk about gangs in general,” said Deputy Inspector Jesus Raul Pintos at the 72nd Precinct’s Gang Awareness Forum on October 15th. “But the four kids that were killed were Mexican immigrants.”
One of the victims apparently had multiple gang tattoos, Pintos said, yet his parents had not known he had any gang-affiliation. Mexican street gangs are not new to Sunset Park, or to New York. They surfaced the mid-1990s, and have grown quickly. Police said they know of about 400 gang members in Sunset Park, 170 of them in Mexican gangs. Neither Vargas nor the four men killed had been on police radar.
Detective Rafael Ramos of the Gang Division gave a presentation at the forum in which he warned parents about their children skipping school and going to “hooky parties.” He showed pictures of tattoos, telling the crowd that ink has replaced gang colors in many circles. It’s not the only change.
The advent of MySpace and other online forums have altered the way gangs operate. Comments and wall posts can be a way to recruit, and to taunt. It used to be that “cross-outs” were the ultimate insult—tagging over another gang’s mark like a slap in the face. The walls have grown, and gone digital. Gang members use comment sections, MySpace pages, and message boards to post shout-outs and insults.
“You have to be a spy in your own house,” Ramos said, telling parents they should keep tabs on the web pages their children visit. “We can only do so much,” Ramos continued. “What you do at home will help shape what kind of person they are going to be.”
Ramos’ focus on the Internet highlights the challenge police, and families, face. The divide between parents and children is longstanding. The digital divide has widened the chasm between generations. Many families don’t have computers at home, and many parents, if they do use the Internet, maneuver much less adeptly than their children.
Much of Ramos’ advice was simple—know your child’s friends, watch what they wear, ask where they go. More difficult for some to follow is Ramos’ admonition that parents follow their son, or, increasingly, daughter, through the corridors of the virtual world.
Then there are the roadblocks in this one.
The crowd in the church gym reflected the multi-ethnic neighborhood—young and old, Puerto Rican and Chinese, black and white. Some from Mexican and immigrant communities sat in the audience, but not enough for the Deputy Inspector. Pintos took the mike. He thanked the neighborhood for coming, but, he said, “This isn’t the audience I was looking for.”
Pintos hoped to attract an audience of Mexican parents and families to the Gang Awareness Forum. He chose a neutral ground—Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH), Sunset Park’s largest Roman Catholic Church. He reached out to his clergy council and community groups. The Precinct posted flyers in store windows and reminders on message boards.
Hilaria Valentin came to hear the presentation. She doesn’t have young children, but she thought parents who do need to know the signs. Many of them work long hours, she said in Spanish, and may not be aware of what their kids do when they are not home.
It is difficult to know if immigration problems, the struggle to make ends meet, or a sense that the forum did not apply kept parents away on the rainy Thursday evening. The 72nd made an effort, but it seems the precinct has an uphill battle. Some think they could wage it better.
Jasmine Salazar is the President of the Jornada Movement, which has one Catholic youth group at OLPH. She looked at the table of gang-awareness materials, the forms that parents could fill out to report on their children in a gang, the announcement, in English and Spanish, of reward given for reporting on guns in the neighborhood. She didn’t see information on therapy, counseling, and other support services. (These links do not endorse any services. They are for informational purposes only.)
“This neighborhood has so much,” said Salazar. “Even if they think” their child might have gang involvement “they don’t want to go to the police,” she said, for fear that even voicing suspicions might cost them their child.
And then there is the view from the inside. Miguel* was at the gang forum. The presentation rang true. His older brother was in a gang, and wound up in prison. When he got out, the U.S. sent him back to Mexico. Miguel’s parents watch their younger son closely now. They don’t let him wear baggy clothes, or go out much.
Miguel keeps his head low, and speaks softly. Even so, when he was 11 years old someone threatened to stab him in the neck for “grillin.” Now 15, he tries to stay as far as he can from his brother’s world. A friend asked Miguel how his brother got into gangs. He shrugged. “In school.”
* The name has been changed for safety reasons.