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Over the past few years, a federal task force has arrested more than 200 gang members in an unexpected place: the tree-lined suburbs along the Hudson River in New York. Drug traffickers with ties to the Bloods and the Latin Kings have put down roots there. Authorities say they brought shootings and stabbings with them. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Middletown, New York is 90 minutes from the city. On West Main Street you can find tidy brick buildings from the 1800s, a brew pub and a restaurant that sells fresh mussels and escargot. But last month, a law enforcement task force used helicopters and SWAT teams to find something else.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: With their hands in cuffs, more than 20 suspected members of the violent Bloods street gang are escorted into the FBI regional office.
JOHNSON: The indictment says the group operated like a criminal machine, pushing cocaine and heroin from the Bronx into New York's northern suburbs. For three months, authorities tracked them using wire taps and cameras set up on telephone poles and trees. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is best known for prosecuting Wall Street executives. But he says preventing gang bloodshed is his top priority. It all began when he sat down in upstate New York with a group of moms.
PREET BHARARA: When you think, what is the worst thing you can hear from somebody? It was this: A mother there talked about how she had lost her own son to gang violence in Newburgh, New York and it made a big impression on me and the other people in that room. And then when you think, what could be worse than that? We listened to the next mom who spoke who said she had lost two sons.
JOHNSON: Violent crime is at historic lows in New York City. But here in Middletown, reports of violence ticked up last year and some neighboring towns have the highest rate of attacks per capita in the state. One incident, a stabbing connected to the Bloods gang, took place at a local diner.
That's where I caught up with Ruben Rivera on a chilly morning as he picked up his breakfast.
Is it safe to go around outside around here now or no?
RUBEN RIVERA: No. No. You got to do something, no.
JOHNSON: Rivera has lived in Middletown for more than 20 years; raised nine children here. It used to be quiet, he says. Now Rivera tells his youngest daughter to stay inside at night.
Ten minutes away, at the Middletown Police Department, an officer takes an accident report in the front room while Lieutenant Greg Metakes describes the gang presence in the city.
LIEUTENANT GREG METAKES: Whereas in the past it was somewhat, I guess you could say underground. Now, they're a little more open, more willing to display colors and things of that nature.
JOHNSON: Back in New York, the sheer number of law enforcement officers in the city makes it hard for big gangs to meet openly there the way they did back in the 1980s. So many gang members have left state prison and migrated north - less heat, more opportunity.
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JOHNSON: Head up the elevator in a nondescript office building a few miles away and you'll find District Attorney Frank Phillips. He moved there last year after a hurricane flooded his old building. But Phillips, who's served as the top county prosecutor since 1986, has another plague on his mind: gang leaders in his community.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY FRANK PHILLIPS: These aren't the drug-addicted street urchins that are being swept up there for statistical purposes. These are the real movers and shakers behind the level of violence that's being committed upon our citizens throughout the county.
JOHNSON: Phillips welcomes help from federal authorities. Who have the resources to wiretap gang members and conduct surveillance.
PHILLIPS: If they can keep taking the top echelons down, I think that will go a long way to keeping a lid on the violence as best we can.
JOHNSON: The man on the front lines is FBI agent James Gagliano. He runs the Safe Streets Task Force in the area - 10 FBI agents, and 20 more officers from federal, state and local agencies.
JAMES GAGLIANO: We use these drug cases to you know to compel cooperation, which in turns allows us to go after the folks that are doing the shootings and the stabbings.
JOHNSON: The strategy works like this: Long before they bring any criminal charges, investigators try to identify the key leaders in the gang. They look at whether those kingpins may have prior drug and weapons convictions, which expose them to decades more in the federal prisons. That leverage could help prosecutors pressure them to plead guilty.
Prosecutor Richard Zabel says if gang members cooperate with authorities, they can unlock other mysteries.
RICHARD ZABEL: Often we are able to solve what have been unsolved homicides, long term unsolved homicides.
JOHNSON: Gagliano, the FBI agent, says he has a bigger responsibility than just solving crimes. He coaches basketball to kids from the rougher neighborhoods.
GAGLIANO: It also gives me an opportunity to interface with some of these young kids at a young age before the Bloods or the Latin Kings or La Eme or the Bankard Barrio Kings or Mad Drama, or any of these other gangs get their claws into these kids.
JOHNSON: He still watches some kids follow a dangerous path, but Gagliano says he has the attitude of a guy who watches forests. He'll clear out the dead wood, but stick around to help the young trees grow straight.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News.