Edwin recalled the afternoon in 2005 when he decided to join the MS-13 gang as a personal low point. He was 14, recently arrived on Long Island, and hating his life.
A group of boys who belonged to the SWP gang had been harassing him in the hallways, cafeteria and locker rooms at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale.
They called him names, pushed him and pinned him against walls and, when no adults were around, punched him. Even though they were immigrants too, they used expletives to berate him as an immigrant, mocked his inability to speak English, commented on his unfashionable clothes and dubbed him "primo"— literally "cousin," which he said was a demeaning term for a "hick."
Edwin, who asked to not be identified by his full or street names, had been leaving school in a rush to avoid his assailants, but that day about 10 of them waited on his path. One called him out to fight. He said he couldn’t turn around without looking like a coward.
They got down to it, and when Edwin landed punches, the other boys jumped him. They were punching and kicking him senseless and he thought he was going to die.
Then, something of a miracle happened. He remembers seeing a souped-up Toyota 4Runner SUV pull up out of nowhere and stop. His attackers ran. A tough-looking guy in his 30s told him in Spanish "Súbete" — to hop in the car.
"To this day I don’t know who he was," Edwin said.
The man revealed that he was an MS-13 member in Hempstead. He delivered him to safety.
Thus began Edwin’s devotion to an organization that largely bypasses the sustaining criminal rackets of other gangs for a loyalty built on crude violence, with a lure so potent it has enabled it to regroup despite decades of crackdowns. Only a turn toward religion while he was in the depths of sadness and depression enabled him to escape this life and replace it with something better.
An unknown newcomer
When MS-13 first arrived on Long Island, it would have been hard to imagine Edwin being drawn to the gang.
The landscape was populated by the Latin Kings, Legion of Doom, the then-emerging Bloods and Crips and other rivals. John Oliva, a retired Suffolk County detective who specialized in gangs, remembers driving north on Crooked Hill Road in Brentwood in 1996 when he first saw the blue letters “M” and “S” with the number “13,” painted 2 feet high on the side of a building.
The graffiti was a head-scratcher. He had no idea that it signified the arrival of a gang that was uniquely violent in a very violent world.
The Mara Salvatrucha — slang for "Salvadoran gang," as the MS-13 is also known — has its origins in Los Angeles. There, young Salvadorans who had fled the civil war in their country from the 1970s and ’80s felt threatened and outnumbered by Mexican gangs and banded together, gang experts and federal government agencies have said.
The gang sunk roots in El Salvador after gang members were deported and set up operations there, but it spread internationally as well — growing throughout Central America and the United States, with many members concentrated in parts of New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Those are places where large populations of immigrants from Central America have flocked, fleeing poverty as well as the threat of violence associated with the gang.
Since Oliva’s first sighting, Long Island has turned into a hive of activity for MS-13.
County police officials have recently estimated membership at 500 in Nassau County and about 600 in Suffolk County, though one federal prosecutor speaking at a roundtable with President Donald Trump earlier this year stated that "2,000 are estimated to be right here in Long Island." Nationwide, the estimate is 10,000.
Its growth, resilience and trademark viciousness have all surprised experts more used to gangs supporting themselves through entrenched criminal enterprises and using violence to support their rackets.
‘It’s not about creating a powerful criminal structure… It’s about proving their self-worth within this perverted social structure, and a lot of that has to do with violence.’ -Steven S. Dudley, American University researcher
Although MS-13 leaders have been trying to develop a more sophisticated and lucrative operation, the gang has traditionally not run large-scale criminal enterprises that would put it in competition with cartels, according to gang experts. Members are usually involved in low-level drug dealing and extortion, and most work at menial jobs.
Steven S. Dudley, an American University researcher who has investigated the gang under a U.S. Department of Justice grant, said that the motives of MS-13 members are more petty and personal.
"It’s not about creating a powerful criminal structure," he said. "It’s about proving their self-worth within this perverted social structure, and a lot of that has to do with violence."
The gang’s Long Island rampage reached a peak in 2016 and 2017, with a score of killings linked to MS-13 in both counties.
There were hackings with machetes, knives and other cutting tools, beatings with baseball bats, and the occasional shooting. Bodies were found in shallow graves in the woods. Some were killed in or near residential streets.
The gang as family
Simple protection, rather than anything that wanton, is what Edwin says drew him to the gang toward the end of his first school year. He said he wanted to emulate the mysterious figure who rescued him.
He had not been exposed to gangs in El Salvador, because he grew up more than two hours from the gritty neighborhoods in the capital of San Salvador that served as their wellsprings. But after his encounters with the Uniondale boys, he decided that he couldn’t go it alone.
"I thought, ‘This is the solution so that I can be protected in school,’" he said.
Edwin went home, logged onto MySpace and started searching. He found a profile for an MS-13 clique in nearby Westbury and chatted with the person running it. He soon knew all he needed to know: If he joined, the group would have his back.
These days, Edwin doesn’t look threatening, but he says he ran with the worst of them. He’s 27, easy to smile, even shy; slender and 5 feet, 7 inches tall.
While sipping agave lemonade at a Panera in Bay Shore, he displayed a photo from those days, wearing a sporty shirt several times bigger than his size and hugging a girl, his eyes hardened into what he described as "a look that could kill."
Edwin agreed to discuss his past because he wants others to know that he turned his life around and that it is possible for them.
He builds concrete patios, driveways and paths during the day. On nights and weekends, he’s dedicated to prayer, preaching and worship at an evangelical Hispanic church in the Town of Islip.
Edwin said he was 13 when he and an older teenage sister journeyed about 25 days from their rural village in Chalatenango, El Salvador, through the length of Mexico to the U.S. border, which they crossed illegally into Texas.
Like the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have made that trek to Long Island, they sought to reunite with a mother they had not seen in years and a father he had never met, Edwin said. Once they made it here, they realized their mom and dad had split and started new families.
They went to live in Uniondale with their dad, who he said had paid to smuggle them, but he seemed uninterested in them. If he wasn’t out working, he was out drinking, and he would arrive in a foul mood and become verbally abusive, Edwin said.
Edwin would find his family, instead, in the gang.
Back in those days when he first approached MS-13, he said, he took a taxi from school with his dad’s money and went to hang out with gang members at a Westbury street that was their hangout spot. He felt accepted, and he returned, again and again.
To prove their allegiance, prospective homeboys — as top members are called — are expected to commit a violent crime against a perceived gang enemy and to endure a 13-second beating by their clique. There are a variety of explanations for why the number 13 has significance to the gang, from the prosaic — that "M" is the thirteenth letter — to the supernatural — that the number carries magical and even demonic power.
According to police accounts, young women have had to submit to gang rape to be accepted as homegirls.
Edwin was eventually permitted to join the Normandie Locotes Salvatruchas, a clique from El Salvador and Los Angeles that was then one the gang’s most feared cells.
He endured a traditional initiation beating by about a dozen members as one slowly counted, telling himself he’d rather take those punches and kicks one time than be abused, attacked and belittled every day. Uno, dos, tres . . . all the way to 13, as is the norm.
He said he learned the hand sign of the Devil’s Horns, dressed in trademark loose shirts and blue Nikes, and carried a blue bandanna that he let hang from a back pocket.
Edwin bears the physical and emotional scars from those years. He compares the gang to a satanic cult, with its adoration of thug life, gang signs, devilish tattoos and graffiti.
Across a restaurant table, he quickly put his hands together — his index fingers pointing out, the middle and ring fingers hidden, his pinkies and thumbs curled into semicircles — and asked: "What do you think this is?"
His answer: It’s Satan’s face.
‘Wherever I arrived, people respected me.’ -Edwin
He said that when he started looking the part and telling others that he was a Normandie guy, he noticed an immediate change of attitude. The bullying stopped. Other boys made way for him in the hallways. Girls looked at him differently.
"Wherever I arrived, people respected me," Edwin recalled. "They offered me beer, girls, drugs . . . There were a bunch of girls. Those girls love to hang out with mareros," as gang members are known among Central Americans. "It was like achieving a rank for some of them."
He didn’t want to go into detail about some gang activities, saying that life is behind him, but he did discuss how he found himself enmeshed in the group’s violent culture.
Joining the gang gave Edwin his revenge. He and his crew jumped guys who had bothered him. He won’t say much about those incidents, other than he’s ashamed of them.
Becoming a gang member created its own problems. He became a moving target for other gangs and he learned not to go out alone. He started carrying a serrated knife. Others kept longer bladed weapons, including machetes.
He said the purpose of using knives rather than guns was to avoid capture. They knew that Nassau police, and later Suffolk, had installed ShotSpotter soundwave detectors at undisclosed locations to pinpoint where gunshots were fired. Cops would respond quickly to citizen reports of "shots fired." Fistfights and stabbings left time to escape.
Membership in the gang had its requirements. Soldiers couldn’t wear other gangs’ colors, couldn’t deny membership in MS-13 if asked, and had to attend meetings in the Hicksville woods twice a week. They had to join in beatings of rivals and go on the hunt for them if told to do so. They had to take part in the initiation and punishment of members, boys or girls.
He said each clique has rules. Normandie girls weren’t sexually assaulted, he said. Instead, they were beaten up by other girls in an equivalent initiation rite to the males’.
‘The gangs don’t bother people just for the sake of it … That’s the law of the gang.’ -Edwin
He doesn’t know, though, how recent cliques, such as the Sailors or Leeward implicated in the recent murders of 2016 and 2017 in Brentwood and Central Islip, operate or whether they followed the same code of honor. Those cliques were not as prominent when he was active.
And while law-enforcement authorities have not linked all recent victims to gang activity, Edwin maintains that the MS-13 members he knew didn’t attack people who weren’t part of that life. He said some of his clique members were punished for getting into fights outside their turf wars. "The gangs don’t bother people just for the sake of it," he said. "That’s the law of the gang."
Edwin said he was locked up seven times at juvenile facilities, mostly in Nassau County, and that five orders of protection were filed against him to protect other young people who had come to fear him. His arrests couldn’t be verified because juvenile arrest records are kept confidential.
"You have to show," he said, "that you are willing to do whatever for the group."
He told this story: In 2008 he and his crew staked out a house where members of the rival 18th Street gang were living. They wore hoods and bandannas and disguised their faces. When the other teenagers came out they went at them, ready to cause serious injuries, but their rivals ran to a car and took off.
They left a person behind, though — a girlfriend of one gang member who was paralyzed with fear. Edwin said he egged on his girlfriend to give her a beating. Some Normandie clique members watched; others vandalized the house.
The incident did not end there. He was later identified as being involved, allegedly by another MS-13 member who was in custody. Nassau police detectives came to his father’s house weeks later, looking for him, and arrested him on the spot. They locked up his sister as well, even though he still says she wasn’t there, and that she paid for the assault that his then-girlfriend committed.
At the precinct where he was processed, Edwin said, he saw an MS-13 member who he suspected was the snitch. Edwin and another MS-13 member spotted him on the street later. He recalls hitting him with a bottle and how they punched him near unconscious. His accomplice pulled out a long blade and was going to kill him, but, Edwin said, he stopped him.
He claimed he never went as far as murder.
Edwin said he and his clique members would often just get together and drink Coronas.
He remembers snorting cocaine with them, first because it helped him enjoy the alcohol without getting sick. That led to binging on the white powder. He overdosed more than once and fell, foaming at the mouth and convulsing. His homies watched over him and fed him milk, an ineffective street remedy, to try to help him recover, he said.
He would steal, he would threaten others and he would fight to get what he wanted. He said he stole from relatives, including cocaine from his dad. The worst thing that happened, he said, was when a cousin of his who was not an MS-13 member was killed in a Westbury shooting because, as Edwin told it, rival gang members had seen them hanging out together.
Still, Edwin saw himself as a soldier of the Mara Salvatrucha. He joined in bar fights and jailhouse melees against others from the 18th Street, Trinitarios, Latin Kings, Bloods and Crips gangs. For many of those fights he only remembers throwing punches and getting punched.
Skin on his right forearm looks like the stitched hide of a football, a mark from one such fight at a Hempstead nightclub. He had been with his crew, drinking and having a good time, when young men arrived and started throwing hand signs, he said. They were Trinitarios — largely a Dominican gang that this June gained considerable notoriety in the mistaken identity killing of Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, 15, stabbed with knives and machetes at a bodega in the Bronx. Their hand gestures were a way to claim territory and disrespect his clique, Edwin said.
This meant they had to fight. He doesn’t remember how it happened, but one of them broke his right arm, and he later took himself to the hospital. The scar is a reminder of where a metal rod was inserted to repair the injury.
Another time, he said, a group of rival gang members found him walking around Uniondale alone and they pummeled him so hard that he was bleeding from his ears. He ran down Jerusalem Avenue while his assailants chased him wielding machetes. He made it to a gas station. Police arrived and, though he didn’t know who had called them, he said he was relieved that they arrested some of his attackers.
He remembers one of them, a member of the 18th Street gang, turning to him when they ran into each other in court and telling him in Spanish: Sí te vas a morir.
Rough translation: You are going to die, for sure.
‘My relatives called me a black sheep and they told me I was going to die in the streets.’ -Edwin
The episode helped cement in Edwin’s mind what he was facing, but he didn’t yet see a way out. As he explains it today, there were three possible destinations for an MS-13 gang member: prison, the hospital or the cemetery.
He may have been living the party life with his brethren, spending time with lots of girls, as he put it. But deep inside, Edwin said, he was consumed by sadness.
Through the times in and out of jail, the constant demand for loyalty, and growing mistrust of other gang members, he came to feel that no one cared about him and that he didn’t care either.
He had lost the trust of his real family.
"My relatives called me a black sheep and they told me I was going to die in the streets," he said. "At one point I felt so alone . . . I was drinking and doing drugs by myself and I would just start crying and I wanted to kill myself."
A leap of faith
When locked up at juvenile detention facility in upstate Dutchess County, he took well to the discipline. He had to get up early, do his bed, tuck his shirt, walk straight and behave well if he wanted to get out.
He noticed visiting preachers who talked about a new life.
Having no one else, he turned to God.
He found himself looking to the forest through the bars of a small window, crying out for forgiveness.
He eventually moved in with an aunt in Bay Shore to get away. He noticed that a girl he friended on Facebook was posting about her faith.
Edwin asked her where she worshipped. He showed up one day at a Spanish-language service, led by a Salvadoran pastor. Churchgoers greeted him as if they had been glad to see him. He felt their acceptance and returned to other services. As the pastor tells it, Edwin broke down during a retreat.
"I remember the way he cried. He was bawling because his repentance was genuine," the pastor said in Spanish. "The first thing he did was to forgive his parents because he was full of hate for them."
Newsday is withholding the name of the church to protect Edwin’s anonymity.
In joining, Edwin took advantage of what he came to know was an accepted way out in MS-13 culture. He said the gang allows members to leave if they commit themselves to a Christian life and truly start anew. Some call former members like him "calmados" or "calmed ones."
‘[Edwin] was bawling because his repentance was genuine … The first thing he did was to forgive his parents because he was full of hate for them.’ -Pastor at Edwin’s church
His church works to reach young people who are lost, the pastor said. It offers them youth Bible study groups in Spanish, Christian parties featuring reggaetón and hip-hop with uplifting messages, outings to parks, a competitive soccer league. About 60 young people have renounced the street life through the church, the pastor said.
Edwin, among them, is a church leader.
"Many of these young people have lacked father figures, they have lacked love, they have lacked identity," the pastor said. "When they come to the church we know they need us to receive them with open arms, not to be rejected, and that we need to work to help them find their true identity, to let them know that they didn’t come to this world to be violent, but that God has a purpose for them and it’s a good one."
His aunt said Edwin’s transformation has benefited his family and others. He’s become a role model to young relatives, including her 15-year-old son, who started high school this September.
"He didn’t let himself be defeated by vice, by the gangs or by Satan," the aunt, who is 53 and works cleaning houses, said in Spanish. She asked to remain anonymous.
Feride Castillo — co-founder of the nonprofit Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island, which works with youth trapped in the cycle of school truancy, gang involvement and substance abuse — said other programs outside of churches can also help those teens renounce the gang life.
"There are some who are far gone, and we know that because they have committed heinous crimes," Castillo said. "And then there are the guys who want what comes along with being part of a gang, the power, the respect and feeling they want to be a part of something, and those are the ones we can reach."
They need access to programs, she said, where they can be listened to and where they can start to envision a way forward.
It’s been three years since Edwin found his path.
On a recent Thursday evening, he preached to three girls and seven boys, all Salvadoran teens, gathered in a small living room and kitchenette in a second-floor Bay Shore apartment.
It was a steamy night. The door was open and the sound of rushing cars on Sunrise Highway and the summer crickets out in the yard blended with his voice. He closed his eyes and sought to convey his emotion through a crescendo of prayer.
"Father of glory," he pleaded on the youth’s behalf. "May they keep striving, let them not be lost, let them not be dragged by the currents of this world."