Mexican Gangs Increase Their Presence in Corona

The Sureños identify themselves with the color blue. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

The streets of Corona, Queens, reveal what its residents have feared and local lawmakers have been denouncing for the past few months: gang violence.

It only takes walking into the neighborhood to understand why many residents avoid getting out of their homes after midnight. The graffiti tags of Mexican gang Sur 13 – also known as Sureños 13 – warn of the risks, a fact that is well-known by the New York City Police (NYPD) and by witnesses of murders and shootings committed by the criminal organization.

In May 2015, the police unleashed a manhunt to capture Raúl Zamora, a known member of the Sur 13 gang who shot and killed 38-year-old Jorge Manzanárez on a Jackson Heights street in broad daylight.

According to the NYPD, Zamora approached Manzanárez and shot him in the chest after an argument. The incident happened in front of 93-12 Roosevelt Ave., near Whitney Avenue, at around 2:23 p.m.

“They’re not afraid to die or to kill.”

Zamora, who lived a few blocks away from the shooting, was arrested in July 2015 and charged with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon.

“These are violent young men, and they are armed. They are not afraid to die or to kill; they don’t care about anything. This graffiti on the walls look harmless, but they are anything but. Another shooting like the one on May 5 [2015] is going to happen any time now. We’re sure of that,” said José González, a resident of the area for more than 30 years.

“Who could forget that death? The shooting happened in broad daylight on a holiday,” said a merchant from the area. “Those people have no qualms about pulling out a gun and shooting [someone]. The street was packed with people that day.”

The Jackson Heights shooting is not the gang’s first incident making headlines in the New York press. In 2012, the police arrested 15 alleged members of the Los Vagos and Sur 13 gangs accused of causing disturbances at the 116th Street Mexican Festival in East Harlem.

However, the ruthless Sur 13 gang is more active in Queens, and in some areas of Long Island (Hempstead and Riverhead) and Brooklyn (Bushwick). According to the 2015 National Gang Report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Sureños are one of the fastest-growing criminal groups in the U.S.

An interactive map created with police data and published by the Daily News in 2015 showed that the Sureños are active around the 110th Precinct, which covers the Corona and Elmhurst neighborhoods. State Sen. José Peralta confirmed this information.

“Rivalry between street gangs – including Sur 13 – has generated too much violence for too long. Last year, I even held a public meeting to discuss the problem of gangs in our communities after a spike in violent crimes perpetrated by gang members,” said Peralta, addressing the complaints and concerns and expressed by his constituents. “Unfortunately, as is the case in many New York neighborhoods, in Corona and its surroundings, we are not immune to this problem.”

Street fights and crime

Corona residents have said that rivalries between Sur 13 and members of other gangs, such as the 18 – which operates on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights – have led to bloody fights in the area, but they also hold gangs responsible for carrying out other delinquent activities.

Residents and merchants say that the gangs are linked to the sale of fake documents and to prostitution on Roosevelt Avenue and its environs, in addition to alleged assaults of workers living in the area.

“Sureños use blue to identify themselves and the number 13 in Roman numbers – XIII or X3. They often wear the number on their clothes and in their tattoos. They also get tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe and carry their rosaries around. I don’t let my kids wear blue so no one confuses them [with gang members],” said Teresa María Suárez, a mother who lives in the area. “I have heard all this at school. When parents say things, it’s for a reason. They say here that gang members are involved with everything happening on Roosevelt [Avenue]. These are really bad people.”

According to the FBI report, aside from selling drugs primarily to make money, the gangs are “increasing their involvement in the high-profit crimes of sex trafficking and prostitution […] Gangs also continue to form partnerships with other criminal organizations in order to broaden their networks,” it states.

“[…] Thus, gangs have connected with Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (MTCOs), sex-trafficking rings and extremist groups. Gangs are also increasing their use of technology – social media in particular – in order to spread their message and recruit new members,” said the FBI.

In the streets of Corona, it is easy to find Sureños graffiti. Some of the tags, generally drawn in blue spray paint, overwrite graffiti previously made by other groups such as Sombra Negra, an inactive Ecuadorean gang.

“I know that the Sureños are not able to go into some streets in the area because of territorial disputes. Apparently, they are fighting for control of the brothels and drug smuggling spots. It is what they say around here, but only the police know the reality of what is going on,” said a bodega owner.

The violent gang, which originated in the southeast of California, does not only recruit Mexican and Mexican-American youths in Queens, according to residents of the area. The gang also persuades recently-arrived immigrants from South and Central America, particularly unaccompanied minors.

The presence of the much-feared gang is not only on display in the streets of Queens but also in YouTube videos in which they brag about their territory along 90th Street.

“It used to be that, if you wanted to find a gang member, you had to know the streets. Now you just have to find their Facebook or Instagram profiles,” said a former member. “They like to exhibit themselves on the internet. They want to be worshipped. They want to show themselves to their rivals, but that’s very stupid because the police always know how to find them.”

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