Guardian Angels to gauge community interest at meeting tonight

Guardian Angel Benjamin Garcia talks with two women at a Greenport laundromat Monday night. (Credit: Guardian Angels)
Guardian Angel Benjamin Garcia talks with two women at a Greenport laundromat Monday night. (Credit: Guardian Angels)

Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa will give a public presentation in Greenport tonight to gauge how receptive residents are to having his volunteer-led community protection group return to the area.

In 2005, after former mayor Dave Kapell invited the group to help tackle the area’s drug problem, Long Island’s first Guardian Angels chapter was established. Residents who were involved in that effort, recently approached Mr. Sliwa again, after four alleged members of MS-13 attacked two men from a rival gang with guns and a machete last month in Southold. 

A small group of Guardian Angels visited Greenport and Southold last Monday to canvass the area and hand out fliers. They started at the Mitchell Park carousel around 5 p.m., then went to the Third Street playground and basketball courts before heading to Main Road in Southold. They left the North Fork around 11 p.m., Mr. Sliwa said.

And what the group found didn’t surprise their leader.

  • Hear what Sliwa says at 7 p.m. tonight, Nov. 11, St. Agnes R.C. Church, Greenport

“They came across quite a few young ladies who are definitely involved with MS-13,” said Mr. Sliwa, 60, who founded the organization in New York City in 1979. “They bragged about it through the gang signs, had the tattoos. They weren’t posers or wannabes.”

Mr. Sliwa said the teenagers, who were hanging out near Third Street Park, approached the Guardian Angels and asked where they were from.

After they explained they were from New York City, the Guardian Angels asked the group of girls about their tattoos, which Mr. Sliwa described as “MS-13 tags.”

He said he believes MS-13 — a gang comprised mostly of Salvadorans — is present in Greenport and “looking to expand.”

MS-13 was formed in the 1980s when refugees fled El Salvador during its civil war and came to Los Angeles.

“The Mexican gangs were preying on them because Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are much smaller — not as stout, not as big as the Mexicans,” Mr. Sliwa said. “In order to protect themselves, they formed MS-13.”

In addition, the 18th Street gang, which was founded by Mexicans in Los Angeles in the 1960s and has expanded to include members from other Central American countries, now has a presence in Southold and Riverhead and is very strong in Huntington Station, Mr. Sliwa said.

Mr. Sliwa said he believes gang-related incidents are sparking throughout the country in conjunction with the latest wave of immigration and that rival gangs are starting to fight one another for new recruits.

“It’s either join 18th Street, join MS-13 or you’re an enemy of both,” he said. “Also, there’s the intimidation of gang-bangers. They follow one code, whether they’re white, black or Hispanic: Snitches get stitches and end up in ditches.”

Mr. Sliwa said Greenport resident Douglas Roberts helped organize the upcoming meeting, during which Mr. Sliwa will make a presentation to local educators about the Guardian Angels’ junior program. He said Tuesday’s presentation will determine if the Guardian Angels will return to the area for an extended period.

“If at that point the community green-lights us to go to the next step, then it’s incumbent upon me to reach out to law enforcement,” he said.

David Gamberg, superintendent for both Greenport and Southold school districts, said Monday that no one had contacted him yet about the Guardian Angels having a presence in the area or Mr. Sliwa wanting to give a presentation about the group’s program.

Mr. Gamberg said faculty and administration from both districts are working closely with law enforcement officials and had participated in an Oct. 30 training session with Southold Town police and Suffolk County detectives to discuss the prevalence of MS-13. Mattituck and Oysterponds school district officials also attended the meeting, he said.

“I’m certainly open to exploring the possibility of getting whatever support we can to make our community aware and safe and able to address the situation in the best way possible,” Mr. Gamberg said. “I speak as a school superintendent of two districts, as well as a resident of the North Fork. I am concerned and I want to make sure we prepare our staff and our residents of the community in conjunction and in concert with the Southold Town Police Department.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said Monday that he hadn’t been contacted by the Guardian Angels either, but didn’t consider that unusual, based on his memory of the organization’s previous presence on the North Fork.

“It was my experience in their previous visit to Greenport that they operated independently without coordinating any of their efforts with local law enforcement,” he wrote in an email. “I do remember sitting in on their community meeting with previous Greenport Village mayor Dave Kapell and I feel there was some value in the message they were trying to convey to the general public. But I also felt that they lacked specific knowledge about the criminal behavior we were experiencing in Southold Town at the time.”

Mr. Kapell wrote in an email Monday that he believes the formation of the neighborhood watch volunteer group in 2005 helped tackle the village’s “acute drug problem.”

“Their efforts, in combination with the work of the Southold police, working with the District Attorney’s East End Drug Task Force, solved the problem,” he said. “This type of collaboration between the police and the people they protect should be ongoing.”

Mr. Sliwa said he believes his group was successful the last time around because both the community and a high-ranking official supported its plan.

He said Guardian Angels were present for about two years. As the open drug dealing began to subside, Mr. Sliwa said, he approached community members to warn them that he had noticed gang members in the area.

“When we were there [in 2005], I was telling people, ‘Hey, you’ve got gang problems here. I see the tattoos on the necks. I see the gang signs,” he said. “There were many who thought it was an overreaction and many businesses told Mayor Kapell, ‘Calling in the Guardian Angels is like yelling ‘shark’ on the beach in the summer.’ ”

This time around, Mr. Sliwa said, his approach will focus on educating public school officials about gangs.

“You as a good parent could do everything that you can do in the Hispanic community to protect your children and shield them from gang activity on the streets or in the mall,” he said. “But then you’ve got to send them to school — and that’s where gang-bangers go, too. That’s where they do their best recruiting.”

Mr. Sliwa described his group’s job as “recruiting the young men and young women who might normally be joining MS-13 or 18th Street.”

“If we can’t recruit them, at least we can try to keep them out of harm’s way — away from the gangs,” he said.

[email protected]

with Grant Parpan