In Gang Attacks, Bodegas Lobbied to Serve as Line of Defense

The Norwood News, WFUV radio, and BronxNet TV conclude their five-part series on the impact of gangs in the Bronx.

As gang-related spats touch off on Bronx streets, leading to bloody consequences, they can spill inside the oft-omnipresent local bodegas, putting owners and employees on the front lines. Edward Lara knows this first hand.

Lara, owner of Deli Grocery in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, fended off an attack of a teen by a mob of teens on Oct. 29 at around 6:30 p.m. In that instance, he put his life on the line.

“A young guy, 15 years old, he came asking for help. ‘Please help me, they are going to kill me,’ those were the only words he said to me,” recalled Lara.

Video surveillance showed the mob rushing into Lara’s bodega and attacking the young boy. Lara and several employees pushed the attackers out of the store, locking the front door.

“They tried to break the glass door,” said Lara. “They were going to kill the guy. So I grabbed a pipe and went outside to face them. What are you going to do? It’s a life. It’s a kid.”

Lara said the 15-year-old, “tried to stand up three times. He couldn’t because they hit him in the head. They hit him only for like five seconds. If they hit him for two minutes they would have killed him.”

Lara said he had no time to think about consequences, he just acted. “It’s a human being. I didn’t have time to think about it, it’s a life,” Lara said.

For Councilman Andy King, Lara’s situation presents the ideal outcome behind his Safe Haven Initiative he began three years ago. The initiative, according to King, would allow owners to use their bodegas to protect young children from attacks.

The initiative, King said, offers the chance for “neighborhoods to be neighborhoods, and getting our storefront owners to be a part of it…It kind of stalled a little bit.” After the death of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz at Cruz and Chiky Grocery in the Belmont section of the Bronx in June, King revisited the initiative.

Junior was misidentified by the Trinitarios gang as a rival gang member. The gang members grouped up in cars and began chasing Junior. He ran into the bodega for safety but was denied help from the shop owner. Video surveillance captured Junior brutally killed outside the doors of the bodega. Now, Cruz and Chiky Grocery is under new management with a new name – Waggy’s Grocery. Three store clerks declined to answer questions on its reception by the community.

When pressed on specifics of the initiative, King simply had an outline with no discernible platform on training. “Right now, we are kicking back the conversations again, bringing the resources in, to move full steam ahead,” he said. “We are in the pipeline of early planning and putting it all together.”

King’s initiative has not happened without false starts. Over the summer, he hosted a training session in the Edenwald section of the Bronx where two officers from the 47th Precinct Community Affairs Unit began a workshop session where no questions on safeguarding children from attackers was raised.

Store owners from the North Bronx and Woodlawn, King said, have expressed interest. He conceded that no bodega owners have “received any training at this point.”

King said installing panic buttons in stores will be part of the initiative. “I’ve spoken to technology companies who are interested in trying to help in this process,” said King, but declined to release the names of the companies he is speaking with, “because we are still at the early stages.”

Lara said he has never heard of the Safe Haven Zone Initiative or spoken to King. Saving young people from gang attacks, Lara said, is a lot simpler than it is being made out to be. He said that there is not much bodega owners themselves can actually do during a crisis situation.

“The responsibility is on the police. We call the police, 911, because we really need it,” Lara said, adding he’s called the police at least once a year since he’s been in business for the last 30 years.

Police were slow to Lara’s call to 911, he said. It took 20 minutes for officers to arrive at his store the night of the incident, he noted. “We would like to get the same service as when you call and say ‘police down, police down,’” said Lara.

For now, he’s on his own, ready to fend off attacks.

“The bodega is the only place in business that the customer is like family. Kids come here after school to wait for their parents. Sometimes parents leave the house key for the kids here,” Lara said.

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