Today, the Sunset Park section of western Brooklyn is a story of urban renewal success, a neighborhood continually redefined over the years by waves of immigration.
In 2016 The New York Times’ Real Estate section heralded Sunset Park as one of “New York’s Next Hot Neighborhoods.” That distinction followed more than 100 years of demographic turnover. Sold by the Canarsee Indians to the Dutch hundreds of years ago, the neighborhood now known as Sunset Park evolved into a shipping center by the 19th century, attracting Irish, Polish and Scandinavians, and was even dubbed “Little Norway” for a time.
Subsequent colonies of more Irish, Italians, Polish, Greeks, and, more recently, Hispanic, Chinese, Korean and Middle Eastern peoples continue to transform the area. The area today brims with more than 100 nationalities mingling within its boundaries, remnants of something old, something new. This is what Brooklyn is all about, the metaphor of the melting pot made true, for better and for worse.
Decades of decay that set in during the Depression, when jobs dried up along the Industry City waterfront corridor, reversed and the area is now on the rise.
Yet not too long ago, circa 1990s, rolling off the crack cocaine epidemic, Sunset Park was the center of a gangland power struggle for the leadership of the violent Asociación Ñeta, a street crew that first coalesced in the penal system of Puerto Rico before spreading to American shores. In Brooklyn the majority of its gang members are ex-convicts, according to court records.
By this period, Sunset Park was a major stronghold for the gang in the United States, its members immersed in a wide range of criminal activities including narcotics trafficking, extortion, robbery, assaults and homicides.
Then in the 1990s, an unusual phenomenon occurred in the traditionally patriarchal structure of the Ñetas, when Joanna Pimentel, a female gang member dubbed “La Madrina” or “the godmother,” vied for power. In her role with the gang, Pimentel coordinated with prison officials on behalf of convicted gang members, supporting them while they were incarcerated to help steer them onto the right path upon release.
According to court transcripts, in 1994, Pimentel organized the “Junta Central,” a consolidated administrative core for the gang intended to bring some needed leadership to the loose confederacy of Ñeta chapters throughout the New York Tristate region. This marked a dramatic departure, in terms of the roles women historically play in gangland, as female associates usually served as aiders and abettors, but not direct participants in crimes and certainly not placed in leadership roles.
In 1994, Pimentel heard rumors that Galiat Santiago, the gang boss of the Sunset Park-based Ñetas, had raped a number of female members. This was serious business. For the Ñetas, rape is punishable by death.
Pimentel put Santiago on “trial,” to face a jury made up of the presidents of various Ñeta chapters. Though found guilty, Santiago eluded a death sentence, and instead was punished with a vicious beating. Blaming Pimentel, he swore revenge. Responding to the threats, Pimentel launched a preemptive strike, allegedly orchestrating the shooting death of Santiago.
A female gang leader is just the kind of underworld plot twist the media foams at the mouth for, and true to form the investigation and prosecution of “La Madrina” made international headline news.
Publicly, Pimentel portrayed herself to the media as a community activist, not a criminal black widow. The Ñetas has a legacy for advocacy on behalf of convicts in Puerto Rican prisons, and later the United States when it spread into New York and elsewhere. Behind the scenes, though, Ñetas chapters are heavily involved in drug trafficking, arms dealing, extortion, armed robbery and other serious criminal activities.
Following a lengthy investigation involving undercover operatives and gang turncoats, federal investigators and local law enforcement descended on multiple locations throughout Brooklyn and beyond, rounding up nearly 30 gang members, booking them on an assortment of crimes, from gun running to drug dealing.
The sweeps corralled members of two gangs, Pimentel’s chapter and The Hard Pack. Both gangs had flooded the streets of Sunset Park with drugs and weapons. In fact, undercover agents bought at least 14 guns from the gangs during the undercover operation that lasted more than two years, as well as plastic explosives.
Despite her insistence that she was a neighborhood activist trying to make a difference, prosecutors had enough evidence and eyewitness testimony to secure a conviction for violations of several federal laws, including conspiracy in the Santiago murder. Federal prosecutors pursued Pimentel under the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering (VCAR) statute that provides for prosecution “when those allegedly responsible participated in the violent crime in order to gain, maintain, or increase a position in an enterprise engaged in racketeering activity.”
In February 2001, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, La Madrina was handed a life sentence.