City Gangs Turn To Machetes

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May 4, 2004
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City gangs turning to machetes, police say
By Christine MacDonald, Globe Correspondent | August 16, 2004

As a boy growing up in El Salvador, Somerville pastor Luis Morales said, he was never frightened when he saw peasant farmers with machetes hanging from their belts. For rural Salvadorans, the long knife is a basic and ubiquitous tool, as common as a Swiss Army knife is here.

Morales, pastor of the Vida Real Evangelical Center, has watched in dismay as Hispanic street gangs have transformed the rural implement into an intimidating urban weapon. Area police say street gangs, whose members once might have favored switchblades and homemade zip guns, now prefer the long knives with blades that can be nearly as thick as an ax and as long as a sword.

"It seems to be that machetes are the weapon of choice," said Detective Brian Kyes, spokesman for the Chelsea police. "In the past couple of years, we've confiscated at least 50 machetes that have been used in crimes in the city."

Law enforcement officials say they have seen a surge in machete attacks, which prompted East Boston police this spring to revive a little-known city ordinance banning knives longer than 2.5 inches. Several suburban communities have enacted similar ordinances to deal with the sword-like knives.

Police seized a number of machetes, as well as Chinese throwing stars and a manrikigusari -- a Japanese metal-chain whip -- during a sweep for gang members in Boston, Chelsea, Lynn, Revere, Everett, and Somerville last month. Lynn police seize two of the long knives each month, either from suspects or at crime scenes, said Mark Richmond, evidence control officer for the Lynn Police Department.

Machetes, available at corner markets, garden stores, and on the Internet, are the most prevalent among the unusual weapons gangs have begun to use. Under Massachusetts General Law, machetes are legal to carry in public.

The machete's proliferation has garnered less police attention and public outcry than recent gun-related homicides at Boston parks, despite a spate of attacks that have left at least four Massachusetts men hospitalized this spring and summer with machete wounds.

Hispanic community leaders and law enforcement officials said the machete has emerged as the weapon of choice for gang members in the past three or four years, a development that has tarnished the machete's centuries-old reputation as a tool used primarily to cut sugar cane and clear underbrush.

"For people in El Salvador, the machete is not looked at as a weapon," said Morales. "Peasants use it in the fields. It's a way of life."

Members of Boston's Hispanic community often hang machetes on living room walls as souvenirs from home or use them for backyard gardening, said Edwin Argueta, cochairman of the East Boston Latino Community Coalition.

"It's part of the culture like [Roman Catholic] crosses and arts and crafts," said Argueta, who first heard machetes referred to as gang weapons two years ago during tense debate over a proposal in Somerville to ban suspected gang members from loitering in public places. Somerville officials passed the ordinance after two deaf girls, one of them confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, were raped in a city park by alleged members of the Hispanic street gang Mara Salvatrucha 13. The gang, also known as MS-13, started in Los Angeles two decades ago and has since spread to dozens of North American and Central American cities.

"People think of you as some sort of a hoodlum if you have a machete," said Argueta, who opposed the loitering ordinance two years ago as a form of racial profiling. He said he is frustrated that Hispanics are increasingly associated with gangs, when gang members make up only a fraction of the state's Hispanic residents. According to the 2000 Census, there were 428,729 Hispanics in the state.

Argueta and Roberto Escobar, El Salvador's consul general in Boston, bristled at questions about the machete's role in gang attacks.

"What about baseball bats? They are also used in gang-related attacks. Even a shoe can be considered a weapon if someone uses it to hit someone else," said Escobar, who said he has a machete in the trunk of his car in case he needs to clear a fallen tree from a roadway, a possibility that may seem remote in Boston but is not uncommon on the country roads of his homeland.

But machetes have a darker history, too. They have been used in numerous civil conflicts around the world, from the Mexican Revolution in 1905 to the current ethnic strife between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. Authorities in North American cities have registered dozens of gang-related machete attacks this year alone.

"Three or four years ago, it wasn't really that common," said one East Boston 16-year-old, who said gang members wielding machetes attacked him twice in the last two years. "But right now, even little kids and most of the gang members are carrying machetes."

The youth, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published, also admitted to briefly owning a $25 machete before his parents found it in his bedroom and took it away.

One of the attacks, he said, occurred on London Street in East Boston, where several teenagers the youth believed to be gang members approached him and asked if he belonged to a rival gang.

"I said, 'I'm not a gang member,' " he said. "Then, they pulled out a machete and I just leaned back and took off running."

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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