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Offbeat Inside the Trinitarios: How a Bloodthirsty Gang, and a $5 Loan, Led to the Death of a Teen

15:50  21 july  2018
15:50  21 july  2018 Source:   nytimes.com

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‘Protection Inside the Jails’. The Trinitarios trace their roots back nearly three decades, to the simultaneous jailing of Leonides Sierra and Julio [Read more on how the Bronx mourned the death of Lesandro Guzman-Feliz]. On the streets of New York, the Trinitarios got their start in the Marcy

A gang member who participated in the killing of 15-year-old Lesandro Guzman-Feliz said that a misunderstood secret code led to the attack. One of the last things Lesandro Guzman-Feliz heard before a gang of Trinitarios chased him down and hacked him to death last summer was a cryptic

Rule No. 2 in the membership handbook is simple: Anyone who disrespects the Trinitarios gang must be swiftly, and severely, punished. The punishment typically follows a pattern — a crowd of Trinitarios, armed with machetes and knives, hunt down and swarm their victims, stabbing and slashing them multiple times.

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Five others were still being sought on Wednesday evening, the police said. “We believe that these were random acts of violence by the Trinitarios gang The police have said members of the same gang brutally assaulted a teenager on the Bronx River Parkway two days before Lesandro was killed.

A gang member-turned-cooperating witness wiped away tears as he testified how he helped drag a 15-year-old boy out of a bodega before he was hacked to death with a Star witness: Trinitarios gang member-turned-cooperating witness Kevin Alvarez (pictured in court in February, left) on Monday

That was the way Ka’Shawn Phillips, 16, was killed in Yonkers in 2005, and Mahomed Jalloh, 18, in Upper Manhattan in 2010. And it was the way Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, 15, died in the Belmont section of the Bronx last month.

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Lesandro’s death differed in one chilling respect. The other victims had quarreled with Trinitarios, but detectives have said Lesandro was a victim of mistaken identity. His killers thought he was a member of a rival crew. The night before he died, Lesandro had had a run-in with Trinitarios who were cruising his neighborhood in cars, and he told a friend they seemed to take him for a gang member.

Captured by a security camera and shared across the internet, the images of a boyish teenager being dragged from a bodega and hacked to death reverberated as few recent crimes have in New York City, drawing outrage and empathy from politicians, police officials and celebrities.

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Members of the Trinitarios gang were hunting for enemies in the Bronx last summer when they found a 15-year-old boy on his phone and walking alone. The desperate teenager tried to hide inside of a bodega, but the gang members dragged him from the store and stabbed him to death as security

Thirteen suspects in the brutal machete murder of an innocent Bronx teen outside a bodega appeared in court for a pre-trial hearing on Thursday. Shocking surveillance video of the brutal attack by suspected members of the Trinitarios gang on June 20 sparked terror within the small community

But Lesandro was only the latest casualty in a bloody internecine feud within the Trinitarios, a highly organized New York-based Dominican gang, law enforcement officials said. The fighting has intensified in recent months and comes several years after federal investigators dismantled the gang’s hierarchy. At least 10 other people were maimed in June in tit-for-tat attacks among warring Trinitario factions in the Bronx.

The conflict highlights a law-enforcement dilemma: When prosecutors take down gang leaders, the remaining members — who are often younger and more rash — are left to fight for control and turf, leaving a trail of death and bloodshed.

The attack on Lesandro also cast a spotlight on the brutality and structure of the Trinitarios, a gang that provides protection to members in prison and funds its operation with drug-dealing on the streets and behind bars. It is known for its violence, with leaders willing to mete out punishment against their fellow Trinitarios by giving a “greenlight” to attack those who violate the gang’s laws.

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Both the name Trinitarios and some of the gang ’s commandments and beliefs directly derive from the actions of those battles. The newborn street gang soon expanded its activities beyond the mere role of a vigilante army to encompass more profitable trades.

Inside the Trinitarios , the ruthless Dominican gang behind three attacks on Bronx teens . Members of the Trinitarios gang pose for a photograph as part of a History channel documentary. One unnamed NYPD official told The Post how the gang 's members lure vulnerable women into city

“They are vicious,” said Chris Ryan, a former Manhattan gang prosecutor. “What we saw in that video is par-for-the-course Trinitario.”

‘Protection Inside the Jails’

The Trinitarios trace their roots back nearly three decades, to the simultaneous jailing of Leonides Sierra and Julio Marine, both Dominicans, on separate murder charges on Rikers Island.

Harassed by gangs, the two men — known on the street as “Junito” and “Caballo” — founded the Trinitarios in 1993, “for protection inside the jails,” said Detective Paul Jeselson, an expert on Bronx gangs.

They named the group for three revolutionaries of the Dominican Republic and adopted their home country’s motto — “Dios, patria, y libertad,” which means “God, homeland and liberty.” They established gang colors: red, white and blue for its flag, and lime green for their homeland. Most notoriously, the gang was armed with a symbolic agrarian tool: the machete.

On the streets of New York, the Trinitarios got their start in the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, said Detective Jeselson, but spread over the years to Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Long Island, becoming adept drug dealers. Preferring machetes over guns, they became known for ruthlessness, even by the standards of rival gangs like the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings.

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As the gang grew, it also developed a complex, swiftly enforced set of rules. No new group, or “set,” could be formed without being sanctioned; members had to follow a strict chain of command; meetings were held and bylaws were upheld; and discipline was issued with scrupulous regularity, particularly for wayward members within the same Trinitarios gang. “I personally haven’t seen any organization like that in the other gangs that I have investigated,” Detective Jeselson said.

Leadership Vacuum Feeds Violence

Today, the gang has offshoots across the Eastern Seaboard, in places like Rhode Island, Florida and Tennessee, and abroad in countries such as Spain. A police database from 2011 placed the number of Trinitarios in the city at 1,181 — a fraction of the 22,935 people estimated to be split among some 235 gangs and crews in New York. Trinitarios membership has remained steady.

Beginning in 2009, the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan largely dismantled the Trinitarios with a series of takedowns. By 2014, at least 140 members, including Junito and several of his high-ranking lieutenants, were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.

But those aggressive anti-narcotics cases created a vacuum of leadership that has fueled violence and disorder on the streets, local and federal investigators said. “Therein lies the challenge of the void,” said one local law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. “Who tries to fill it? And how do we react to it?”

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Federal prosecutors believed then that they had crippled the gang, but as law enforcement resources were shifted elsewhere, the Trinitarios re-emerged, said a former federal law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified because the official was not authorized to speak to the press. None of the 12 people arrested so far in Lesandro’s murder were on the Justice Department’s radar four years ago.

“These people revitalized the gang,” the official said. “New leaders have come to the forefront.”

$5 Dues, and a Prayer

Richard Gonzalez joined the Trinitarios while serving time in prison in 2003 and later rose to become the leader in the Bronx and Manhattan for a time, before being swept up in a federal raid in 2010. Three years later, he agreed to testify in Federal District Court in Manhattan against his former friends, offering a rare insider’s account of the gang’s customs and helping to send five people to prison.

“When you become a member of the Trinitarios, if you have any outstanding debts, they are paid for,” Mr. Gonzalez testified in 2014. “If you have any problems with any individuals or any type of conflicts, they are resolved, whether it is diplomatically or with violence. These are the people that look out for you, that take care of you when you go to prison.”

One needs a sponsor to join, and once in, new members receive a rule book, take an oath and swear to abide by the gang’s constitution, Mr. Gonzalez and the federal law enforcement official said.

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Members pay $5 dues at mandatory weekly chapter meetings, funds that are used for bail, weapons, parties, drugs, prison commissary costs, even everyday items like Pampers. The meetings end with a Trinitarios prayer, with the members standing in a circle, heads bowed, arms crossed, holding hands. “There really is a sense of brotherhood,” the former law enforcement official said.

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On the streets, there are layers of leadership that include a first-, second- and third-in-command, Mr. Gonzalez testified. Three members also serve as heads of security and their job is to secure the gang’s weaponry and maintain relationships with other gangs. A central committee governs the chapters, with one member designated to be “in charge of war,” similar to the president’s secretary of defense, Mr. Gonzalez testified.

Rank-and-file members, or “soldiers,” he said, carry out orders — acts of violence — issued by the leadership. Death is considered an acceptable outcome. Heads of discipline keep the soldiers in line, handing out fines or beatings to disobedient members.

The leaders hash out problems with other gangs and discuss trouble in their own ranks at the weekly meetings, which are held in parks or at a member’s home. “They’d talk about what needs to be done and do it in the most brutal fashion,” said Nola Heller, a former chief prosecutor at the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan who handled several cases against Trinitarios.

Yet violent rivalries started to divide the Trinitarios in 2011, when a leader of a chapter in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, tried to establish sets in the Bronx without permission, Mr. Gonzalez testified. Incensed, Mr. Gonzalez said he “greenlighted” a beating of the Sunset Park leader.

“Sunset had come into the Bronx and started recruiting, which was against the rules, Detective Jeselson said.

More recently a bitter fight erupted between the Sunset group and another Brooklyn Trinitario set that had encroached on the Bronx, the Surés.

That feud led to a series of attacks and counterattacks three weeks before Lesandro’s death, with other Bronx Trinitarios sets joining Suré to help beat down Sunset.

Between June 5 and June 19, the fighting among Trinitario sets led to at least two shootings and eight stabbings, the local law enforcement official said. Among the victims was a 14-year-old boy who was brutally assaulted on June 17 on the Bronx River Parkway by a group of Surés, some of whom also are accused of taking part in the attack on Lesandro.

In late May or early June, Diego Suero, who the police say is a Suré leader, had called for a “greenlight on Sunset,” giving gang soldiers the authority to go on the attack, the official said. The night of Lesandro’s death, his assailants gathered at Mr. Suero’s apartment building on Boston Road before setting off to hunt their rivals, the official said.

‘My Deep Worry’

On the evening of June 20, Lesandro left his home on Bathgate Avenue and 184th Street at about 10 p.m. to lend $5 to a friend, his mother, Leandra Feliz, said in a recent interview as she cradled photos of her son in her living room, only a block from where he died.

Lesandro, who went by the nickname “Junior,” did not return right away. Sometime after 11 p.m., he walked toward Adams Place, a popular spot with youths that is about six minutes away on foot. For several months, he had been socializing at night with friends on that street, sitting on the stoops and chatting with girls his age, two friends said.

“He was at this age where they want to make friendships, leave the house,” Ms. Feliz said in Spanish. “They think they’re big and can go out alone, go to a party.”

Near a small park called the D’Auria-Murphy triangle, the teenager ran into the group of Surés who were circling in three cars, searching for Sunset rivals, the police said. It remains unclear why they believed that Lesandro was a gang member, but as they saw him, alone, the assailants yelled out, “Sunset, Sunset.”

“He stops, they stop,” the local law enforcement official said. “Then, they get out of the car and he realizes something bad is about to happen and he runs.”

Like many teenagers in his neighborhood, Lesandro had walked a fine line, navigating streets where Trinitarios and other gangs exerted muscle and recruited heavily in local high schools. Though he aspired to be a police detective, he also made friends who were Crips and Trinitarios, his acquaintances said. They said he never joined a gang himself and the police said they had no indication he was in one.

Ms. Feliz said she warned her son to avoid talking with gang members because he could be mistaken for one of them. “That was my deep worry and fear,” she said.

Even the night before his murder, Lesandro had a close call. Several carloads of Trinitarios, looping around Adams Place, zeroed in on a 15-year-old Sunset member whom Lesandro knew, one of his friends said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The fleeing boy pleaded for Lesandro’s help as he ran, but Lesandro froze, the friend said. The gang members stopped and stared Lesandro down. Then they chased the boy, caught him and bloodied him with knife blows. The boy ran off.

Lesandro told his friend that the attack had left him shaken, worried that he had suddenly been implicated in the gang violence. “He saw that something was going to happen to him,” the friend said.

“It happened to him.”

Follow Jan Ransom and Al Baker on Twitter: @Jan_Ransom and @bakeal

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