Cardinal José Gregorio Rosa Chávez kicked off a three-day visit to Long Island on Friday by calling gang violence a complex problem, often rooted in family troubles, that won’t be solved by “repression” by law enforcement.
Rosa Chávez — named as El Salvador’s first cardinal by Pope Francis — also said justice must be carried out 37 years after Archbishop Oscar Romero was slain in San Salvador, and that his homeland still is recovering from a brutal civil war during which the sight of corpses on the streets became routine.
Rosa Chávez was invited to the Diocese of Rockville Centre by Bishop John Barres, both to celebrate his elevation to cardinal and to help address the gang violence and a crackdown on immigrants that has wracked the Latino community. Long Island is home to an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans, one of the largest concentrations in the nation.
The MS-13 gang, which operates both in El Salvador and the United States, has been linked to 12 killings — mostly of young people — in the Brentwood and Central Islip areas since 2016. The brutality of the slayings shocked even longtime law enforcement officials.
Rosa Chávez, in an interview taped Friday by Telecare, the diocese’s cable television station, said that “in my country, there is a policy of severe repression” against gang members, with the philosophy that “a good gang member is a dead gang member.”
But the cardinal said the approach has proven ineffective, leading to an escalation of violence.
“What happens? The gang member is a cornered animal, he becomes more savage, and they are killing police,” he said in Spanish. “That methodology doesn’t solve anything.”
“At the same time, the people suffer because of what gang members do. They celebrate when a gang member dies,” he said. “We are at a moment that is very dehumanizing.”
Rosa Chávez, who long served as a parish priest, said he has participated in gang prevention programs run by the church in El Salvador and has found that many gang members’ home lives are fraught with anger and dysfunction.
One gang member told him that he came to group meetings at the church “because here they don’t yell at me like they do in my house. Here they don’t tell me I am worth nothing. Here I receive an opportunity and here I receive love,” the cardinal said.
Rosa Chávez also said it is time for El Salvador to punish those who killed Romero in 1980 because of the archbishop’s stands against widespread government abuses.
No one ever has been charged in the case in El Salvador. The government last year overturned an amnesty law passed to shield those who had committed atrocities, and prosecutors have reopened some cases, including that of Romero’s slaying.
Rosa Chávez, who worked closely with Romero, said the assassination and other violent acts committed during the civil war, which raged from 1980 to 1992, must be addressed for the nation to move ahead.
“To cure the soul of the people, it is necessary to recognize what happened,” he told Newsday. “We are a country that has not been reconciled.”
During the war, “you would walk on the streets and see the dead, many mutilated, hung from trees. It was a savage scene,” he said.
Rosa Chávez on Friday also visited an immigration services center run by Catholic Charities in Amityville. On Saturday, he is scheduled to visit the Nassau County jail and celebrate Masses at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip and St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood, one of the largest Latino parishes on Long Island.