HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — The intense crackdown on gangs continues on Long Island, with growing success, many in law enforcement say.
But they also admit that members are targeting and luring kids at younger ages.
CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan met with some of them and their guardians recently, and has an exclusive look at youth and gangs.
Middle schoolers played on swing sets, appearing carefree.
But just down the street their 12-year-old classmate recently survived a beating and shooting in what police said may have been gang initiation.
Friends described gang pressure to CBS2’s McLogan.
When asked what would happen if someone said no to the initiation, 11-year-old “Eddie” said, “They’re going to beat you up. They’re going to punch you and everything.”
So what do you do?
“Just go with it, because, like, there is no way of (getting) out of it,” Eddie said.
Retired Suffolk County Police detective John Oliva specialized in gangs.
So why are gang members recruiting children as young as 10 or 11?
“It’s the age where can start getting into these kids’ heads,” Oliva said. “The recruitment sometimes occurs at home also. We’ve had it where three, four brothers in the same family part of the MS-13 street gang.”
Feride Castillo of the Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island works with young children in poverty.
“When we are talking about gangs, the dynamics are so complicated,” Castillo said. “We are talking about children sometimes even being born into families that are already involved in gangs.”
“It’s kind of hard dealing with the struggle and stuff like that, because, you know, you come from a gang-related home,” 13-year-old “Maria” said. “Like, oh I want to be popular, so I am going to be in the gang.”
Some females but mostly males make up Long Island’s estimated 1,000 gang members. Protection from bullying, a desperate need to belong and a yearning for respect are all reasons why Sergio Argueta joined at age 13 and led a gang for five years in Hempstead.
“A mode of survival is fight or flight, right? And oftentimes, kids are getting tired of being bullied, of getting picked on,” Argueta said.
Abraham Fernandez said he has concerns about his little brother.
“I try my best to try and watch who he associates with but with him it’ll probably that sense of respect, the sense of feeling worth,” Fernandez, a high school senior, said of his 12-year-old sibling.
Police say even middle school kids who join may be pressured to perform violent acts with machetes or knives.
“The violence was just to be feared and respected,” Oliva said. “They want to walk in the school and everybody else knows that is an MS-13 kid, don’t even mess with him.”
“Sometimes you can meet up with gang members on chatting websites and if you don’t know what you are getting yourself into. A family member is part a gang, and is telling you to join the gang. That’s a problem,” 12-year-old “Arturo” said.
Former gang banger Argueta is working to put kids on the right path.
“If you empower young person, keep them involved in positive activities, Make sure there is one caring adult,” Argueta said.
Some clergy and teachers CBS2’s McLogan spoke with said they hope that just as our country as embraced victims of opioid abuse, people will begin to feel the same compassion for vulnerable young teens at gang risk.
Many churches in Hempstead, Brentwood and Central Islip are offering dinners, clubs and recreation for children at risk.