Of the 16 murders committed last year in Essex County, five were gang-related. They were over drugs. They were about retribution. They were a senseless waste of life.

Gang members who try to recruit children will promise a sense of family, support, material wealth and status. They are empty promises. If you join a gang you will end up in prison or you will end up dead. There are no other roads.

Just a few short weeks ago, the Latin Kings and their associates thought they ruled the streets of Lawrence. They thought they could traffic in narcotics, deal lethal firearms across our cities, and commit waves of violence in our neighborhoods with impunity.

They were wrong.

Today, as a result of "Operation Dethrone," an 18-month undercover investigation by local, state and federal authorities, 17 defendants are now in federal custody and one is in state custody awaiting trial. Two others remain at large, but eventually they will be captured and prosecuted.

If convicted, they face anywhere from five years to life in prison.

If convicted, most will be jailed far away from family and friends, in federal prisons in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other states.

If convicted, their lives as they know them, are over.

The takedown of the Latin Kings, which included three gang members from Lowell, is only the latest in a succession of sweeps by law enforcement to crush the gangs in our communities. Operation Dome Dwellers in January of this year took down four gang members. Operation Immortal Outlaws in September of 2002 swept 31 gang members off the streets. And Operation Latin Gangsta Deciples in January of 2000 resulted in the arrest of 14 gang members.

There are more takedowns to come, and that is not an empty promise.

Gang members should be looking over their shoulders at their relentless pursuers, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, asking, "Who are those guys."

"Those guys" are prosecutors from my office and U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan's Office, Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley's Office, Chief John Romero's Lawrence Police Department, Massachusetts State Police, Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins' deputy sheriffs, Chief Ed Davis' Lowell Police Department, agents from the FBI, ATF, Rockingham County authorities, and many other entities.

It is the Essex County Gang Task Force, in existence since 2001, combating gang activities, sharing gang related intelligence and deterring gang recruitment.

Every gang case that comes into the courts of Essex County is given "priority" status. And my office works closely with U.S. Attorney Sullivan's office, coordinating prosecutions to put high-ranking members of violent gangs in state and federal prisons.

We are on a mission we must not, and we will not, lose.

But law enforcement alone is not the answer. We applaud the youth workers and the educators who guide vulnerable children in the right direction, who stand tall in the face of gangsters trying to seduce young members and declare, not this child. We stand shoulder to shoulder with parents who dutifully rise up in the face of these criminals and fiercely declare, not my child.

They are the ones who give our children the strength and values to turn away from a dead end life, work hard in school and find their dreams. They are the ones who help our children understand that gang life is no answer.

Just a few short weeks ago the Latin Kings and their associates thought they ruled the streets of Lawrence.

Look where they are now.