Detective Lt. Kurt Conroy wants the roughly 30 Latin Kings operating in Amsterdam to know the police are watching them.
A large-scale drug raid in the city last month resulted in the arrests of four local members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, bringing the national gang’s Amsterdam presence into public view.
The 33-year-old area leader, David Canales, who Conroy said is known as “First Crown,” was arrested on drug dealing charges.
“Hopefully the local gang will take a hit,” without the leader, Conroy said, “but I’m sure there will be someone willing to step up and take his place.”
Also arrested were Ricardo Aponte, Carlos M. Vega-Carbonell and Peter W. Santos, all of whom police say have ties to the Latin Kings.
But the raid was just one step in a long-term investigation into the gang. Conroy said the several dozen Kings still working in the area hold regular meetings, which have at times been under surveillance by officers.
He described their activity as, “the usual stuff: dealing drugs and intimidation if someone else is dealing in their area.”
While the police have been investigating Kings activity for years, many in the community were shocked by the gang’s local presence.
“I was so surprised,” said Ivonne Ramos, who helps run the youth construction program at Centro Civico, a nonprofit community service organization that focuses primarily on Hispanic youth. “I used to live in New York City, and when there were gangs, they let you know.”
Like many at Centro Civico, she works regularly with youth at the prime age for gang initiation and tries to stay informed on the issue. The organization even brought in Ron “Cook” Barrett, a gang prevention specialist from Albany to teach their staff the telltale signs of gang activity — skills including reading graffiti and picking up gang lingo in conversation. Even so, Ramos said, the post-raid press conference was the first she had heard confirmed reports of gang activity in Amsterdam.
But city residents aren’t oblivious. According to Barrett, gangs in general are trending away from what he called “the braggatory culture they cultivated in the past.”
“Because of Federal RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] cases, they don’t want the same attention they had back in the day,” he said, listing gangs in Albany and Schenectady recently taken down by RICO cases. “They don’t want to bring any unnecessary heat on their illegal business, so you’re not going to see people walking around in bandannas broadcasting their affiliations.”
One way to stay under the radar is to set up shop in places that aren’t aware of the gangs, such as small towns and rural areas.
“It’s all socio-economic,” Barrett said, “When you have pockets of poverty and demand for elicit drugs, you have the foundations of a gang.”
While not all drug dealers are gang members, the two are very often linked. According to Montgomery County District Attorney Jed Conboy, who is prosecuting the recent arrests, drugs have long been a problem in Amsterdam.
In 1996, when he first took the Montgomery County job, a large number of his cases were drug related, he said.
“At the time the whole East End of the city was basically an open-air drug market,” he said. “There were people selling on just about every street corner.”
Such brazen criminal acts are never good, but at least, as Conboy pointed out, they’re easy to prosecute. Undercover police officers would simply pull up at any given East End corner, buy drugs, then go to the station and pick out their dealer from a book of mug shots. Case closed.
In the years since, fewer drug cases have come across Conboy’s desk, but he said there is no reason to think the local drug market is actually shrinking.
“We were so successful at eradicating the open sales,” he said, “we drove them indoors.”
In fact, incidents of crimes typically spawned by drugs, such as home invasions, larceny and assault, have actually gone up, suggesting a rather healthy illicit trade.
As police adjusted by fostering confidential informants, the dealers became more careful, which may have led in part to the formation of the area Kings. Gangs tend to have a structure and network of trust that allows for dealing under legal pressure, a structure that makes it difficult to prosecute.
Conboy explained that the recently arrested Kings will be tried for drug sale and possession rather than gang-related charges because “it would be too difficult to establish the necessary linkages and continuity of action to support organized crime allegations.”
Police couldn’t speak as to when the gang moved into the area, but Conroy said most of the known members were longtime city residents before getting into the club. “I don’t really know how they were recruited,” he said.
Though Ramos doesn’t personally know any members, she believes the gang targets youth from broken homes. “They buy the kids food and clothes and call them brother,” she said, “They make them feel accepted, and what else do young people want?”
Amsterdam police are still investigating Latin Kings activity, specifically in regard to several unsolved robberies and violent crimes, and hope to continue making arrests. Barrett said strong families and a strong community can stop the ripple effect of bad behavior gangs tend to start.
“Gangs are a replacement for family,” he said. “So keep your home strong, your community strong. Let the police do their jobs and the rest will take care of itself.”