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Book reviews: 'Gangs in Garden City,' 'Mara Salvatrucha'

GANGS IN GARDEN CITY: How Immigration, Segregation and Youth Violence Are Changing America's Suburbs, by Sarah Garland. Nation Books, 305 pp., $26.95.

THIS IS FOR THE MARA SALVATRUCHA: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang, by Samuel Logan. Hyperion, 245 pp., $24.99.

The title of Sarah Garland's book, "Gangs in Garden City," is misleading. Don't expect to read about violent youth cruising the tony streets of the Estates section.

Still, Garland's depiction of the fertile gang territory just a few miles away is plenty startling. This ambitious, sometimes unwieldy book focuses on the community of Hempstead and two Latino gangs: the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, widely known as MS-13, and subsets of the lesser-known 18th Street gang. Originating in Los Angeles, both groups consist largely of immigrants from war-ravaged, poverty-stricken Central American countries.

Garland weaves her impressive research on immigration, education and criminal justice into the narrative stories of three young gang members. Jessica, the American-born daughter of a Honduran immigrant, grows up in an abusive family filled with MS-13 members. She joins a rival gang, Salvadorans with Pride, at the age of 13. Julio, a former Salvadoran soldier, joins MS-13 in Los Angeles before moving to Hempstead, where he's eventually deported.

Perhaps most compelling is the story of Daniel, a Salvadoran boy who illegally crosses the U.S.-Mexican border at the age of 12 to reunite with his mother in Hempstead. There he meets Jaime, another recent transplant. The two become best friends until Daniel joins Salvadorans with Pride, while Jaime gravitates to MS-13. Jaime ends up dead, the first of several friends killed by gang violence.

We see Daniel at the end of the book as he lounges on the leather chairs at Roosevelt Field Mall. "It was one of the only places in Garden City he visited often, although even here, he sensed he was an outsider," Garland writes. "The racks of clothing and shelves of new shoes and perfume were beyond his means. He could only look. Still, to Daniel, the mall was an oasis where the grit and despair of Hempstead didn't penetrate."

Alienation is a key theme in all three stories, and Garland sees gang membership as a way for these teens to find a sense of belonging.

Garland also delves into the anti-immigrant debate on Long Island, writing about the flare-ups between immigrants, particularly day laborers, and the mostly white residents around them, which devolve into violence on several occasions. But she doesn't fully explore the dynamic of anti-immigrant violence or the connection between it and the gang-fueled violence.

Garland's formidable research ultimately becomes the book's primary weakness. Too often, compelling narratives are interrupted by lectures on the failure of the educational and juvenile justice systems. Though important for context, they slow the reader down. Just when you want to see Jessica or Daniel in action, there's a chapter on violent crime filled with statistics that aren't nearly as telling as their stories.

Problems of segregation and race on Long Island make solutions especially difficult, Garland says. For Jessica, who eventually graduates from an anti-gang program and moves to North Amityville with her mother, there appears to be only one solution: "She was thinking about her future and saving money," writes Garland. "Her dream was to get out of Long Island, and the suburbs, as soon as possible."

In contrast to Garland's account, Samuel Logan's "This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha" portrays MS-13 as a deadly, highly organized operation whose reach extends from Texas to the Washington D.C. suburbs and beyond.

Logan's book begins with the chilling murder of Javier Calzada, an innocent, hardworking son of two Mexican immigrants killed by MS-13 members in Carrollton, Texas, for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately the book devolves from there. Logan focuses on Brenda Paz, who joins MS-13 at the age of 15. After witnessing Calzada's death she ends up in Fairfax County, Va., where she is witness to another brutal MS-13 killing. Paz is eventually arrested, becoming the FBI's most invaluable informant about MS-13, according to Logan.

Logan details Paz's entry into the witness protection program and her many relapses, when she flees back to the arms of gang members. As charismatic and charming as Paz is, watching her destroy her chances of starting anew makes her much less sympathetic.

By the end, you're waiting for the gang members to turn on Paz, which they eventually do. "Why are you doing this?" she pleads as her boyfriend and friends attack her.

"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha," one of her friends says in response.

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