After a Gang Bust, Mixed Feelings in Eastchester

An Eastchester playground where authorities say gang members took part in open-air drug dealing.                           (Marybel Gonzalez)

An Eastchester playground where authorities say gang members took part in open-air drug dealing. (Marybel Gonzalez)

The silence on the courtyards of the Eastchester Garden housing project in the early afternoon was interrupted by one man, visibly upset, walking swiftly by one of the complex’s three playgrounds, his cellphone in hand. “They took everybody,” he said to the person on the other end of the line. “Everyone I love is gone.”

Nearly 90 people—most of them known gang members—were taken into custody from the north Bronx housing project Wednesday morning, charged with racketeering, narcotics, and firearms offenses. Other charges included allegations of murders, shootings, and stabbings. In total, 120 people were indicted.

Some in the neighborhood said they feared violence from gang disputes, but others said they know—and care for—the arrested gang members.

The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, along with New York’s Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, referred to the sweep as “one of the largest gang takedowns in New York City’s history.” The arrests came as law enforcement moved to curb gang violence in the city. Despite a drop in murder rates, the 49th precinct, which includes Eastchester, has experienced an increase in violence, according to a NYPD crime report.  Since last year, felony assault, burglary, and robbery have all shown an increase there. Rape has more than doubled.

Most of the members arrested belong to two street gangs—2Fly YGz and the Big Money Bosses, rivals who have been feuding with each other for nearly a decade. Members used social media, including YouTube and Facebook, to promote their criminal acts, Bharara stated. During the investigation, which started in 2014, law enforcement officials used this content to investigate members and later issue warrants for their arrest.

Some residents seemed relieved by the bust. “Shootings happen too often,” said Maria Casanova, who has been a 15-year resident of the housing project. “Sometimes I sit in my bedroom with my windows open, and I have to go and close them because I never know if one of the bullets might come into my bedroom and hit me.”

At a senior center inside the complex, Helen, who declined to give her last name due to fear of retaliation, said that she had felt unsafe in the neighborhood. Last Sunday, on her drive home from church, she said that a group of young people threw rocks at her daughter’s car. She said she also frequently hears gunshots in the area. “There’s so much shooting that one night I had to get on the floor and lay down because I was scared,” said Helen.

Yet although residents live in fear of being caught in the crossfire of the rival gang members, some still consider them part of their community. A tenant for more than 30 years, Fay Allen, said that she doesn’t feel personally threatened by those taken into custody. “Most of them are nice people,” said Allen, who knows three of the arrested juveniles. “Sometimes the media portrays them as the most dangerous people, but that’s not always true.”

Casanova, who says the accused young adults often called her “mom,” said they are often victims of their circumstances. “If they see anything going on with me they jump on it; they protect me,” she said. “That’s why I don’t have anything against them. They never did anything to me.”

In addition to the 90 people initially arrested, about 30 members are still being sought. Since Wednesday, four more members were arrested.

Bhahara emphasized his team’s commitment to keep members of the Eastchester community “decent and safe.”

He also sent out a message to those involved with gang activity. “Unless you like jail or death, don’t do it.”