In an effort to raise awareness, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s gang intelligence unit presented a gang seminar last night at Riverhead High School and explained the history and motivation behind gang culture, as well as the different groups and subgroups that exist nationally and locally.
The event was sponsored by the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force. Task force chairperson Constance Lassandro said it is important to “make people understand what to look for and what’s out there, in our neighborhoods.”
“I would love to see the schools have an assembly about this topic and understand this. It would be tremendously important,” she said.
Sgt. Joseph Nasta, one of the speakers and a 15-year member of the sheriff’s office who joined the gang unit 10 months ago, said awareness is key.
“It’s important for parents to be aware what their children are up to, on social media, after school, and be aware what they are doing when parents are not around,” he said.
East End resident Romulo Quezada, who attended the event with his teenage son after he saw a post on Facebook, agreed.
“Teenagers need to know how to identify the signs,” he said. “I wanted my son to hear and see for himself how terrible gangs are.”
Nasta was joined by Sgt. Steve Lundquist, a 25-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, 14-year founding member of the gang unit and gang expert witness for the New York State court system.
“We are not trying to scare the community, we are trying to make them understand what’s going on,” Lundquist said. “One bad decision can impact the rest of someone’s lives. They can wound up in jail — or worse, dead.”
What is a gang?
A gang is defined as a group of three or more persons who have a common identifying sign, symbol or name and whose members individually or collectively engage in a pattern of criminal activity in the name of the gang or for the betterment of the gang, Nasta said.
“Belonging to a gang is not illegal,” he said. “Gangs preach loyalty, love, respect, etc., but it’s not true, they don’t tell you what they are really about, that you’ll end up in jail, if you’re lucky, drug-addicted or dead,” he said.
“Something I learned is that it doesn’t matter how different and diverse each gang is, in the end they are exactly the same,” said Nasta . “Power, money, greed, intimidation — it’s not about anything other than that.”
Crimes committed by gangs usually involve drugs, prostitution, extortion, intimidation, violent crimes and others, he said.
“Our goal is to gain knowledge through the inmates we house,” Nasta said. “We don’t interrogate them, we interview them, not asking them about their crime, but about their social life. We will develop a rapport with them that will help us understand and identify what’s going on.”
Social media is one of the preferred methods of recruitment and communication and it provides a good source of research for the gang unit, Nasta said.
He also explained that currently there are 1,355 inmates between the two correctional facilities in Suffolk County, located in Riverhead and Yaphank, and about 282 of those inmates are confirmed gang members representing 32 different gangs.
“Bloods represent about 40 percent of the 282 gang members who are currently housed in Suffolk County correctional facilities,” Nasta said.
Since different gang members can’t mix, Nasta said that one of the biggest challenges they faced was “finding housing for all these different members so they can live together, but at the same time segregate them from one another.”
The presentation focused on explaining differences among national gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips; gangs with a Central American origin such as MS-13; local gangs such as the Low Rider Brim which Lundquist said are big in Riverhead; outlaw motorcycle gangs such as Hells Angels; white supremacists such as the Aryan Brotherhood and finally a newer movement called the Sovereign Citizens, also present here, that are a major threat to law enforcement because they think they are only answerable to common law and not subject to statutes or proceedings at the municipal, state or federal level.
Gangs can be born out of sports teams, schools, blocks, and other groups, he said. Although is not illegal to be in a gang, committing a crime in the name of a gang, or for the betterment of a gang, is punishable by law and carries a steeper sentence.
“There is no mold for gang members, they are whites, blacks, Latinos, from all backgrounds and ethnicities,” Nasta said.
People join gangs, Nasta said, because they want to belong to a “family” or because of peer pressure, or they are looking for “respect,” excitement, money, protection, power, or because of anger or drugs.
Types of gangs
National gangs are organized in two major groups that consist of two different alliances of several gangs aligning themselves with unique symbols, colors, numbers and principles: The Folk Nation — which Crips and others operate under — are on the rise in Suffolk County and identify with the six-pointed star and the number 6. The People Nation — which Bloods, Latin Kings and others fall under— identify with the five-pointed star and with the number 5.
They both originated in the late 1970s and they both idolize the Italian Mafia.
Central American gangs are a newer phenomenon, Lundquist said. They idolize the Mexican Mafia and originated in the late 1990s, early 2000s in the United States. Members are primarily of Central American descent and are very organized, much more than other gangs, Lundquist said. Most of them are concentrated in Brentwood, Central Islip and Huntington Station, but they have also found a presence in Riverhead.
“MS-13 has the worst reputation and they like it like that, to be known for being the most violent gang,” Lundquist said.
The majority of original members were deported in the 2000s, the sergeant explained; law enforcement is now dealing with gang members that are U.S. citizens. Those who are here undocumented, will lay low and have fewer tattoos in an effort to avoid deportation.
“For a lot of them, jail in the U.S. is far better than living in the streets of El Salvador or Honduras, countries that are severely impoverished and where gangs control large parts of the country,” Lundquist said.
Central American gangs are known to victimize the Latino community in particular, he explained.
“What put them on the map is that victims didn’t trust the police, maybe it is a cultural or language barrier, but that fear of law enforcement meant that crimes went unreported and that actually made MS-13 thrive,” he said.
Suffolk County gained national notoriety after the 2016 brutal murders of several teenagers, primarily Latino, in Brentwood by the MS-13 gang, which prompted a public outcry as well as a visit from the President. Since then Nasta said that the county had gained more resources as a result, and recently there have been several high-profile arrests of MS-13 members as well as other gangs, such as G-Shine.
“Right now there is peak spotlight on MS-13, and they are rounded up every day, but that creates a void and other gangs are building their numbers up,” he said. “Today is MS, tomorrow it will be another gang.”
Outlaw motorcycle gangs and white supremacists are also groups that have significant gang activity on the East End and may engage in criminal behavior.
And in Hampton Bays, there is a Klu Klux Klan chapter that has been actively recruiting, said Lunquist.
“They are primarily now focused on targeting immigrants,” he said.
Nevertheless, even though the presence of gangs “as far as Westchester” is significant and can’t be left unchecked, Lunquist said that it was also important not to judge people based on certain characteristics.
“There are more good people than bad people out there, because someone looks a certain way, or dresses with certain colors or has a particular tattoo, doesn’t mean they’re in a gang,” he said.
The sergeants emphasized that the help of the community was also vital, and they asked that if anyone in the public saw or heard something, from a simple graffiti to any suspicious activity, that they immediately contact the gang unit at the Riverhead jail (631) 852-1864. They can also text Nasta directly at (631) 965-2391.