One year after the brutal killing of Bronx teen Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz, gangs remain a “fact of life,” but with greater community awareness, efforts are being made to suppress violence.
Guzman-Feliz was stabbed to death outside of a Belmont bodega on June 20, 2018, by alleged Trinitarios members who mistook him for a member of a rival sect of the gang. Five of 14 men arrested in connection to Junior’s death were convicted of first-degree murder on Friday.
After the killing, the community in the Bronx and elsewhere rallied around the Guzman-Feliz family, demanding justice for the 15-year-old boy, who dreamed of one day becoming a detective. People gave tips to the NYPD to help them arrest the suspects. Artists kept Junior’s memory alive with tributes and murals, and politicians made promises to address gang violence.
But in the year since his death, has violence decreased?
“It remains a fact of life,” Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres said. “But I’m under no illusion that we’re gonna root out gang violence overnight.”
Targeting gang members
The NYPD targets gang members through a strategy known as Ceasefire, which launched in multiple Brooklyn precincts in 2014. Partnering with local clergy, the program holds “call-ins” with members of crews who are on parole or probation and offers them social services, like help finding a job or completing their education. But officers also issue a warning: if violence continues, the gang will have “the full attention of the NYPD and all the law enforcement agencies in New York City,” said NYPD Assistant Chief Michael Lipetri, who oversees the initiative.
Ceasefire was introduced in the 48th Precinct, where Junior was killed, shortly before his murder, Lipetri said.
“It was just starting,” he said. Now, the program is active in seven Bronx precincts, in addition to about a dozen in Brooklyn and two on Staten Island.
After Junior’s murder, the NYPD was getting information that there could be violence between Trinitarios members at the Bronx Dominican Day Parade last summer, and because of Ceasefire, they were able to take measures to prevent that violence, Lipetri said.
“We asked Parole and Probation and U.S. Probation, through Ceasefire, if we could ban those individuals from going to the parade because of the intelligence that we had that there was possibly going to be violence between two sects of Trinitarios,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what direct impact Ceasefire had in the Bronx precincts, but in each one, there have been fewer murders this year, as of June 9, compared to the same time frame in 2018, according to NYPD data. Shooting incidents were also down or remained the same in all the precincts, except the 42nd.
In 2017, when Ceasefire was primarily in Brooklyn, the precincts with the program saw a 21 percent reduction in homicides versus a 13 percent reduction citywide and a 24 percent reduction in shootings compared to a 21 percent reduction citywide, Lipetri said.
Part of the success of Ceasefire depends on the community, Lipetri said.
“You gotta get the community involved, just like anything else,” he said, adding that when people hear about the program, it “gets a lot of positive feedback.”
Education, community involvement
For Torres, the Ceasefire program can’t fully solve gang violence, and the more effective way to reduce violence is through youth employment.
“I have a deeply held belief that every young person who needs a job should get one because a job — it gets you off the streets, it builds character, it builds life experience, it builds a livelihood,” he said.
Torres has introduced a bill in City Council that would establish a universal youth employment program, providing jobs to all 14- to-17-year-olds and 18- to-21-year-olds who attend a middle or high school. But the proposed legislation is currently awaiting a hearing.
In a similar attempt to offer young people an alternative to getting involved in gangs, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. helped establish “Camp Junior,” a summer camp in upstate New York for boys and girls from the Bronx who are ages 9 to 13. Starting this summer, the camp will provide free recreation and educational activities, including an anti-violence curriculum.
Community-level programs designed to prevent gang violence also are active in the Bronx, including a Cure Violence initiative in the 48th Precinct, which launched after Junior’s murder with $1 million in city funding secured by Torres. The Cure Violence model, which has been implemented in several other parts of the city, such as Morrisania, Crown Heights and Brownsville, employs “credible messengers,” who were previously incarcerated, to intervene in conflicts in the community before violence can happen.
Anecdotally, Torres said the initiative in the 48th Precinct, which is run by the community group BronxConnect, has helped decrease violence, but he said it’s too soon to know exactly how it has impacted the community.
“We know that Cure Violence at large is an effective strategy for reducing violence,” he said.
Everyone in the community can play a part in changing the mindset of young people, staff members of Save Our Streets, which runs a Cure Violence initiative in the South Bronx, said at a “Justice for Junior” town hall hosted by News 12 The Bronx and Univision Noticias Tuesday night.
“If you ain’t out there representing the community and helping the youth grow to be better people and being a positive light, then just stand out of the way,” said Kevin Johnson, a “violence interrupter” for SOS.
Junior’s killing also inspired the creation of the group, “United Bodegas of America,” which formed in part to help bodega and deli owners prevent a similar event in the future, said spokesman Fernando Mateo at the Tuesday town hall.
Junior had run into the bodega on East 183rd Street and Bethgate Avenue, trying to escape the men chasing him. The clerk called 911, but the men dragged Junior out of the store to kill him.
“What happened there should not have happened,” Mateo said.
The organization met with the NYPD in December for a safety summit, where bodega owners and employees got training on handling violent situations. In January, the bodega where Junior was killed was the first to be equipped with new safety technology, including a button to lock the door and a panic button that calls police.
A handful of other bodegas have gotten the technology installed since then, Mateo said. “They’re called Safe Haven bodegas and they have a sign, so if anyone goes in there and they need help, the bodega owner will have time to help them,” he said.
Though gang and youth violence has by no means disappeared in the Bronx, there is a “greater awareness” in the community, Torres said.
“The shocking murder of Junior Guzman has been an awakening for all of us locally about the need to break the cycle of gang violence,” he said.