Newark Residents: ‘This is A Shooting Zone’

Santos Valentina Granados, the mother of brothers José and Francisco Castillo-Granados said that her sons dreamed of playing soccer professionally. (Photo via El Diario)

Unlike Paterson, Elizabeth, Edison and Woodbridge, the city of Newark, New Jersey, is not on the FBI’s list of most dangerous municipalities in the country. Still, residents of the area describe it as a “war zone.”

“Bullets fly by,” say the dwellers of the most populous city in the Garden State. “Shootings rule the streets. This is the Wild West. No man’s land,” add relatives of victims, refusing to normalize gun violence.

This uneasiness became more acute after the murder of Honduran brothers José and Francisco Castillo-Granados – 25 and 22, respectively – on the night of Aug. 27 between Adams and Walnut streets in the Ironbound neighborhood.

At the moment, the police said that the killing of the brothers marked the 43rd and 44th homicides in the area. However, 48 murders have been reported so far this year, fewer than the 69 recorded last year.

“My children loved to play soccer. They would practice after work and every weekend. They were good kids who never hurt anyone. (…) I heard the shots that day – it was very close to our house – but I never thought it could be them. You always hear shooting around here,” said Santos Valentina Granados, José and Francisco’s mother. “They came here together from La Paz. I left them when they were little and brought them here because of the violence we have there in Honduras. Who would have known that I was bringing them here to die?”

Santos Valentina has lived in Newark for four years. She describes the city as “unsafe, violent, and governed by the ‘maras’ (gangs).” She assumed that her children would be safe, as they “worked in construction and all they ever wanted to do was play soccer.”

“They had come from Honduras less than a year ago. We are no longer safe anywhere. There is violence both here and there. Guns don’t let us live in peace. We have no peace,” she said, as tears streamed down her face. “I pray to God that he will protect our children from bullets.”

Fewer murders but shootings on the rise

The homicide rate in Newark, just 10 miles from New York City, is nine times higher than in the rest of the country. In the Big Apple, homicides have dropped 85 percent since they reached a peak in 1990.

Still, murder rates in Newark have decreased in recent years, according to police statistics. On the other hand, shootings have seen a dramatic spike. So far, 183 non-deadly shootings have been reported in 2017, compared to 144 during the same period in 2016, an increase of 27 percent.

A total of 246 non-fatal victims of shootings have been recorded, an alarming 33 percent increase compared to the 185 counted last year for the same period.

Shootings often involve multiple victims, as was the case with the one that took place outside a bar on Fleming Avenue and Richards Street on Sept. 1 which left three people injured.

Personal and drug disputes are the most common motives in shootings and murders committed with firearms. A recent analysis performed by the organization Safer Newark Council shows that 31 percent of all shootings are linked to drug dealing and distribution, 21.4 percent are motivated by personal disputes and 15.1 percent are gang-related.

Safer Newark Council spokeswoman Elizabeth Ruebman said that, while the police’s offensive against crime “has considerably reduced violence in Newark, [violence] is still a serious problem that may get out of control.”

Reducing crime rates is crucial to Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration, and part of its strategy is to “increase the number of police officers, reinforcing bonds with the community and improving coordination between local and federal law enforcement agencies,” said the mayor’s office.

So far this year, the police has confiscated 363 firearms and arrested 233 people – a 23 percent increase – in relation to criminal possession of firearms. In the same period in 2016, the police had carried out 189 detentions.

Baraka’s administration said that Newark saw a “historic decrease” of 10 percent on homicides in 2016 – the lowest rate in 50 years – a downward trend that seems to remain consistent. According to the Safer Newark Council, homicides have dropped by 29 percent so far this year.

Ironbound, a dangerous neighborhood

As reflected on a map of drug-related arrests and violent crimes, Newark’s Penn Station and its surroundings, in the Ironbound neighborhood, could be one of the least safe areas in the city.

The map shows extensive criminal activity in the area, located just 15 minutes by foot from the corner where the Castillo-Granados brothers were killed.

Residents say that this section of Ironbound is “quite violent,” particularly because “criminals sell drugs to the homeless people who loiter in the area.”

Miguel Gamboa, a restaurant employee from Guatemala, said that he avoids going out at night for fear of being mugged and “beat up for no reason.”

“You take your precautions, but shootings happen at any hour of the day. Bad people are not looking at the clock to commit their crimes,” said Gamboa, who has lived in the area for close to 10 years. “It is quieter now, but a few years ago this was the Wild West. The police are more concerned with laying down the law.”

Gamboa’s partner, Severino Méndez, said that the problem is the widespread drug dealing, “which is turning people into zombies.”

Méndez remembered an incident in August, when some 40 people became intoxicated after consuming synthetic marijuana. In April, something similar happened to victims who had bought drugs near Newark’s Penn Station.

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