New York (AFP) – It was the brutal murder that horrified New York. A 15-year-old teenager hacked to death by machete after being dragged out of a shop by presumed gang members in a case of mistaken identity.
Lesandro Guzman-Feliz dreamt of becoming a police officer when he grew up. But while his school friends embarked on their summer vacation, he lay dead in a casket, his grief-stricken family holding his funeral on Wednesday.
The June 20 attack, captured on video, sparked outrage about the scourge of gang violence in the Bronx, unfair stereotyping of young Hispanic men, distrust in police and why seemingly no one helped him.
It devastated his parents and those who knew him, rocked the community to the core and prompted celebrities such as superstar Rihanna and rapper Cardi B to join the calls of justice for the boy widely known as Junior.
He was stabbed in the neck a minute from his apartment, before being forced to run — alone — to St Barnabas Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Police have cast blame on the Trinitarios, a Dominican gang based in New York, who were purportedly looking for a man who made a sex tape with one of their relatives, mistaking that man for Lesandro.
“We will leave literally no stone unturned,” Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea has promised. “We will not tolerate thugs on the streets of the Bronx.”
– ‘Distraught’ –
The particularly brutal murder of a boy known for his wide smile, friendly manner and politeness provoked an avalanche of tips that led to the arrest and charging of eight men with murder, manslaughter and assault.
But a week after Lesandro’s killing, the bodega where he tried to hide remains shuttered, the sidewalk outside a shrine to Lesandro with a sea of candles, balloons, teddy bears and messages mourning the “Bronx angel”.
There dozens of local activists and residents still stand, fingers pointed in the air shouting in English and Spanish “Justice for Junior” and “Forever 15.”
“I need justice for my son. That’s my junior, my little baby and that not happen anymore with any other kid,” Lesandro’s mother, Leandra Feliz, told reporters two days before his funeral.
“My heart is broken,” said his father Lesandro Guzman, who has tattooed a picture of his son’s face onto the back of his hand as a permanent memorial.
Hundreds of mourners packed into Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church for his funeral, including officials, police and youth from the department’s Explorer program, to which Lesandro belonged hoping to one day become a full-time cop.
“Everyone’s distraught,” Manny Oquendo, Lesandro’s music teacher, told AFP. He blamed the murder on “senseless violence, people not understanding how to go about things, anger and mistaken identity.”
“I’m sure they were afraid of the repercussion, but they should have done something,” Oquendo told AFP of the people in the bodega.
– ‘Shame in America’ –
“I think there’s an awareness now that I hope builds up,” said Oquendo. “But I don’t see any lasting or any permanent change coming out of this.”
At his funeral, a priest decried the “evil” behind his death and urged people to “say no to violence which is just a fake substitute for purpose and meaning.”
Outside, hundreds broke into chants of “Justice for Junior” as pallbearers dressed in Yankees jerseys brought out his coffin. Dozens of mourners wore white T-shirts embossed with pictures of Lesandro.
“It was horrific,” says father of seven and restaurant manager Joe, 36, declining to give his second name.
“Everyone just stayed there and watched him get dragged out,” he added. “From a parent to a parent I can’t even imagine what the family’s going through.”
A Go Fund Me page has raised more than $287,000. The charter school where Lesandro was a student, said it was “heartbroken” by the loss of a “kind, sweet, respectful young man, always smiling, who had so much potential.”
“It’s an abuse, what they did to this kid,” school worker Blanca Maldonado, 54, told AFP as the coffin was placed in the hearse. “It’s a shame that this has happened right here in America.”