MS-13 on Long Island: What we know about the gang

Where does the gang originate?

MS-13’s home base is in El Salvador.

Experts say the violent culture of the gang comes out of the at-times lawlessness of the country, where police and the army and street gangs in poorer neighborhoods have waged fights for control with almost no holds barred.

When did they show up on Long Island and where have they spread?

For the most part, MS-13 gang members who come to the United States settle in areas where there are already Salvadoran communities — on Long Island in Brentwood, Central Islip, Huntington Station, Hempstead and Freeport.

The street gang has existed for decades, but the recent uptick in activity on Long Island has been linked by officials to the surge in immigrant teens who have come into the country as unaccompanied minors since 2015. Suffolk County ranks fourth in the nation for the number of children who cross the border illegally, according to recent statistics. The gang sees them as potential recruits.

Officials stressed that not all unaccompanied minors are gang members.

How many members are there on Long Island?

Authorities have identified 712 members of the gang in Nassau, of whom 345 are active, according to Acting Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter.

The gang has about 400 members in Suffolk County, according to Police Commissioner Timothy Sini.

How many have been charged with crimes?

The situation is fluid. At the end of May, Sini said in his testimony before a congressional panel that more than 200 MS-13 gang members had been arrested in the nine months prior.

In July, three suspected gang members were indicted in the quadruple homicide of four men in Central Islip, federal court documents show. Several others were arrested but were juveniles, sources said at the time.

More than a half-dozen members of MS-13 were indicted earlier this year in the killings of two teenage girls in Brentwood and another alleged gang member. In June, Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas announced indictments against 41 alleged members of MS-13 on conspiracy and other felony charges in connection with 32 incidents of violence since 2013 including eight attempted murders, shootings and slashings.

How has the gang evolved?

Experts believe the recent eruption of gang violence on Long Island is due to a new and more deadly profile of MS-13. At the heart of that profile are newcomers from Central America eager to make their mark within an immigrant gang already known for its code of brutality and violence and its weapon of choice, the machete.

These newcomers have found a niche in MS-13 on Long Island — replacing those who have been arrested — and are focused on proving themselves to be even more violent than established gang members.

Experts say MS-13 is distinguishable among gangs in that its hallmark is not to shake down store owners or to protect drug-dealing operations. Instead, members commit violence for its own sake, in large part as a way to carve out and control the turf they consider theirs, purging it of rival gang members and others perceived as having disrespected MS-13.

What is the profile of an MS-13 gang member?

Increasingly, new recruits to the gang are young. “Some of these are 16, 17, 18 year-olds,” DeMarco said.

The machete is their principal weapon, in part because of its savagery, but also because it is commonly available and used for agriculture in Central America, sources say. It is cheaper to purchase both there and in the United States, where guns are harder to obtain and more expensive, several experts say.

How do they make money?

A member of MS-13 usually puts in an eight-hour day at a low-paying job, sources say — but then is required to go out at night and “put in work,” or hunt down perceived enemies.

Recently arrested members of the gang have been employed as restaurant workers, car washers, landscapers, salad makers and sheet-metal platers, sources said.

But the gang cannot survive without money, Homeland Security Special Agent in Charge Angel M. Melendez said. The gang has a “sophisticated financial network that supports nefarious activities” through prostitution, extortion and collection of dues.

Who have their victims been so far?

MS-13 was responsible for 11 murders on Long Island in the past year, according to Melendez.

The gang is thought to target perceived rivals in immigrant communities. The 11 victims on Long Island have been young Latinos and blacks, many of school age, authorities say.

The brutal beating deaths of two young girls in Brentwood last year shone a light on the violent nature of MS-13.

Kayla Cuevas, 16, was “involved in a series of disputes” in person and over social media with MS-13 members and associates in the months before the killings, prosecutors said in court papers. She and her best friend, Nisa Mickens, 15, were killed by four MS-13 gang members who had gone “hunting for rival gang members to kill” when they came across Cuevas and Mickens, court papers said.

At least one recent victim, Jose Pena, 18, was a member of the gang. He was suspected of being an informant.

Most recently, a quadruple homicide in Central Islip was linked to the gang. The victims were Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue; Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport; Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, of Brentwood; and his cousin, Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Pompano Beach, Florida, who had arrived on Long Island for a visit just days earlier. Authorities have not reached a definitive reason for the killings.

What can be done to curb the gang

The gang is “a top priority for the FBI” as it expands and employs increasingly violent tactics, said William Sweeney, assistant director of the FBI’s New York field office, at a hearing at the Central Islip federal courthouse on Tuesday.

Sini said local law enforcement officials are partnering up with federal agencies and even foreign governments to attack MS-13.

Gathering intelligence is key to the effort, he said, and Suffolk has bolstered its working relationship with the FBI and other agencies. But prevention is also critical including in schools, and officials are focusing on that as well.

They are using statutes such as the RICO laws to dismantle MS-13, he said. “It is a great way to go after the leadership as well,” he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called Monday for the federal government to more closely vet immigrant teens who come into the country as unaccompanied minors and to notify local agencies of their arrival.

Where else in the country is MS-13 a problem?

MS-13 has 10,000 members in at least 40 states, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who spoke about the gang on Long Island in April.

Originally published: Tuesday, June 20, 2017 | REPORTING BY: Nicole Fuller, Bart Jones, Robert E. Kessler, Mark Morales, and Victor Manuel Ramos