Hub’s ATF chief, residents talk guns and street violence in unique meeting

By 
Stephen Kurkjian, Special to the Reporter
Nov. 18, 2010

ATF Chief: Isaura Mendes, mother of two murdered sons, reaches out to Guy Thomas, head of Boston’s ATF office, at Sunday afternoon’s meeting at St. Peter’s Teen Center. 	Photo by Stephen KurkjianATF Chief: Isaura Mendes, mother of two murdered sons, reaches out to Guy Thomas, head of Boston’s ATF office, at Sunday afternoon’s meeting at St. Peter’s Teen Center. Photo by Stephen Kurkjian

The accounts of loss and grief that violent death has brought in recent years to an increasing number of Dorchester families, particularly inside the Cape Verdean population, brought nods of recognition from the well-dressed, heavy-set man at the microphone at St. Peter’s Teen Center on Sunday afternoon.

For Guy Thomas, who recently took over as head of the Boston office of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there was a tie beyond his crime-fighting interests that bound him to the 40 or so people who showed up to hear him and several Boston Police commanders speak: Born and raised in the projects of New Haven, Thomas saw one of his cousins killed and two others wounded on the streets of his boyhood neighborhood.

“I know firsthand the pain that comes from losing a family member like this,” he said. “You never get over it.”

In a poignant exchange, Isaura Mendes, who has lost two sons to violence in Dorchester, stood up and, reaching her hand out to Thomas, said, “Maybe together we can find a way, some answer.”

There was yet another connection that the speaker shared with some in the audience: his Cape Verdean heritage. Thomas is the only Cape Verdean to head an office of the ATF, the federal agency that targets the illegal transfer of weapons, and he is hoping that his success can help persuade Cape Verdean parents to raise their sons with equal amounts of care and discipline.

The center of St. Peter’s parish is located in the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester, which ranks among the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Heavily populated by immigrant families, it has been plagued in recent years by shootings and battles among rival Cape Verdean factions. Sunday’s meeting featuring Thomas was advertised in the parish bulletins of Holy Family and St. Peter’s, two Roman Catholic churches that serve the area.

Much of the spike in violence in recent years has been attributed to warfare between rival Cape Verdean gangs. An analysis by The Boston Globe published earlier this year found that there had been eight assaults in the area just during the month of April. The first homicide in Boston in 2010 was the Jan. 1 shooting of a 25-year old man on Geneva Avenue. And in August 2009, two men were killed by gunfire at a popular Cape Verdean nightspot in nearby Uphams Corner. Among the victims was the 47-year old chef of Ka’-Carlos restaurant, who was an innocent bystander to a fight inside the restaurant that preceded the shootings.

Last December, two 18-year old Cape Verdean men were arrested after they opened fire on a 30-year old from a rival gang, hitting him in the head, shoulder, and thigh. At their arraignment, prosecutors said that the shooting was part of “a longstanding rivalry between small factions in the Cape Verdean communities of Roxbury and Dorchester.”

Such street warfare leaves residents concerned for the safety of themselves and their loved ones. Peter Gomez, who recently moved out of the neighborhood after living there for 13 years, spoke after the meeting, saying he was concerned for friends and

family members who still live on streets around St. Peter’s Church. “When I moved in here, people were always outside, being friendly, being neighborly,” he said. “Not anymore. Now you worry all the time when your kids are outside, and you get really worried when they’re not home on time.”

While welcoming to Thomas, several at the meeting pressed him and Boston Police Supt. Bruce Holloway, head of the department’s Investigative Services unit, about what steps those who live in the community could take to stem the shootings and street violence.

Thomas said as a first step, residents should inform police if and when they suspect anyone, including members of their family, are hiding a gun. But, Natalia Goncales, a mother who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, responded that parents often live in fear of their sons because they have never disciplined them.

“We raise our daughters the right way but many don’t know how to get the sons to obey,” she said.
Asked how the community might help ATF in striking at the illegal flow of guns into neighborhoods like Dorchester, Thomas pointed to the need for more manpower on his agency’s end. While other federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI have seen their ranks grow dramatically in the last two decades, the number of agents in the ATF remains about the same as it was when he joined 23 years ago – about 2,500 nationwide.

“We are the one agency that goes after guns that cause so much of this violence, and you have to wonder why,” Thomas said. “The problem has gotten bigger, but our numbers haven’t grown.”
He went on to explain how his agency, whose legendary Eliot Ness pursued and brought down the gangster Al Capone, has had its abilities to track the illegal sales of guns hampered significantly in two major ways: While licensed gun dealers must notify the ATF of the sales of all such weapons, the agency does not get notified when a weapon is sold on the “secondary market,” that is between two private individuals. And while those with criminal records are prohibited from buying a gun from a licensed dealer, they routinely turn to “straws” to purchase the guns for them.

Despite such drawbacks, he said, ATF agents make a strong presence on city streets by partnering with local and state agencies. As head of the Boston bureau, Thomas oversees ATF operations in the six New England states and seeks to establish working relationships with local police departments in the tracing of the ownership of guns used in crime.

One of the strongest connections is the one the Boston ATF office has established with the Boston Police, he said. Currently, two Boston Police detectives and a supervisor are assigned directly to ATF to help trace the owners of guns tied to street violence.

Once an illegal transfer has been uncovered, federal laws can be used to bring charges of illegal trafficking in firearms, a felony complaint that carries a heavy prison sentence. One resident at the meeting urged Thomas to consider using anti-terrorism statutes, which can carry life prison terms for conviction, against street gangs. But Thomas deflected the recommendation, saying the statutes in place carry sufficient penalties.

Pacita Bradford, a retired officer assigned to the Massachusetts Parole Board, told Thomas that law enforcement, as well as political leaders need to bring greater urgency in the battle against teenagers getting access to, and using, powerful weapons. “These kids don’t even know how to scrub their backs,” she said. “But the guns they’re using are more powerful than ones used by Boston Police…and they know how to use them.”

Stephen Kurkjian is the Senior Investigative Fellow for The Initiative for Investigative Reporting in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. His work for the Dorchester Reporter is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The foundations are committed to supporting investigative and watchdog journalism by community news organizations in the Boston area. He can be reached via Stephen@Dotnews.com.