Last Tuesday’s shooting in Southold, in which four alleged members of MS-13 attacked two men from a rival gang with guns and a machete, has brought attention to the growing problem of gangs on the East End.
In Riverhead, Riverside and Flanders, gang violence has long been an issue. Town, police and community leaders say they are working together in an attempt to attack the root of the problem.
In Southold Town, gangs are more prevalent than in the past, as changing demographics have brought Latin groups like MS-13 and 18th Street to the East End.
Sgt. Steven Lundquist, an investigator with the Gang Intelligence Unit of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, said the county’s most prevalent gang is the Bloods, though other national gangs — including the two involved in last week’s shooting, as well as the Crips and the Latin Kings — are also active across the area.
Most gang activity, he said, is tied to drug operations and assaults.
“Drugs, guns and gangs all go together,” he said. “It’s all linked.”
Gang members have tried to “fly under the radar” in Suffolk County in recent years, Sgt. Lundquist said. Law enforcement is seeing fewer gang members wearing their traditional colors or getting associated tattoos.
Police have also found that gang members known to live in Nassau or New York City have turned up across Suffolk County, Sgt. Lundquist said. He believes those gang members are traveling east to avoid a larger police presence.
Last week’s incident was an escalation of the gang activity typically reported in Southold Town, where shootings are rare, said police chief Martin Flatley.
“None of [the recent violence] has been as blatant as this,” he said.
Chief Flatley said police suspect that some assaults involving different “factions” of Hispanic men may be gang-related, but added that it’s often difficult to prove, since some members of the Hispanic community often do not trust police. He said the root of that problem with trusting cops lies in Central America, where police corruption is rampant and gangs are said to control many parts of the region.
The last major gang-related incident in Southold Town took place in 2009, when a 15-year-old Eber Lopez of Greenport went missing from a christening celebration in Southold, Chief Flatley said. At the time, neighbors said they heard three gunshots just before midnight and police found blood in the backyard, according to a previous Suffolk Times article.
Homicide investigators said that Eber — who was not affiliated with a gang — had been confronted by known gang members at the celebration.
The teen’s body was discovered in Farmingville the following month. A Southold man was later convicted of aiding another man who murdered the boy, though the killer was never caught.
Chief Flatley said crimes like the murder of Eber Lopez or the shooting early last Tuesday are rare. He told The Suffolk Times that police have noticed more activity with Hispanic gangs in the area, likely because of the rising immigrant population.
“It’s almost inevitable,” he said. “A lot of the families are from El Salvador. We obviously do know how a lot of the culture is in El Salvador and when they move to our area they’re moving with a part of their culture.”
The Southold chief said his officers take training courses on how to identify gang members and have worked with other police departments to build a database of possible gang members in the area.