Murder in the Suburbs
US deportation policy is stoking gang violence across the nation.
Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla's mother. Photograph by Ike Edeani.
For months, they had been threatening Kayla Cuevas. One flashed a knife at her in the hallway of Brentwood Ross High School; others taunted her in the streets of their working-class Long Island town. A talented basketball player from a Puerto Rican family, Cuevas wanted to be a police officer, but lately she'd been getting suspended for fighting with a Salvadoran gang called the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
Cuevas's Facebook profile shows a 16-year-old caught between childhood and adulthood: a girl crouching by a Christmas tree with her hands in prayer; the same hands throwing gang signs amid a cloud of marijuana smoke. On Tuesday, September 13, 2016, Cuevas and her friend Nisa Mickens were walking in their neighborhood when four MS-13 members jumped out of a car and started beating them with baseball bats and machetes. Mickens's lifeless body was found that night in the street beside an elementary school. Cuevas's was recovered the next day behind a nearby house.
Over the next six weeks, police dogs sniffed out the skeletal remains of three more teenagers—Óscar Acosta, Miguel García-Morán, and José Peña-Hernández, all of whom had been missing for months—near a psychiatric hospital in Brentwood. Police blamed the MS-13. The murders largely escaped national notice at the time, but shortly after the presidential election, Donald Trump interrupted his "Person of the Year" interview with TIME magazine to retrieve a copy of the Long Island newspaper Newsday. On the cover was a story about the EXTREMELY VIOLENT GANG terrorizing Suffolk County, New York. "They come from Central America. They're tougher than any people you've ever met," he told the magazine. "They're killing and raping everybody out there. They're illegal. And they are finished."
In the following months, gang violence in blue-collar towns like Brentwood put a face to Trump's "bad hombres." Newspapers in Maryland, California, and Texas described horrific crimes—execution-style shootings, machete slayings, and dismembered bodies—and growing hysteria in the immigrant enclaves where they occurred. Suffolk County authorities suspect MS-13 involvement in 15 homicides since the beginning of 2016. In April, when four young Latino men were killed with machetes in Central Islip, the next town over from Brentwood, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made an official visit. He met with the parents of Cuevas and Mickens and claimed the MS-13 was "smuggling members across our border as unaccompanied minors." He vowed to "choke-off" the gang's supply lines and "devastate" its networks. On April 18, Trump tweeted, "The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS 13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!"
The FBI has linked the rise in gang activity to the arrival in the US, starting in 2013, of tens of thousands of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan children fleeing violence in Central America. According to investigators, nearly every major metropolitan area with a large Salvadoran population has seen an uptick in crime by the MS-13 and by its rival gang, Barrio 18. The government's theory: Gang members are preying on new arrivals. Its solution: Round the gang members up, lock them up, and deport them.
For the past several years, I've been reporting in El Salvador on the very kind of gang violence that has driven nearly 10 percent of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans to flee their countries. The violence, which is so severe that it has made Central America one of the most dangerous regions in the world, is widely acknowledged to have roots in US deportation policies of decades past. Like many people who study the region, I've come to see the gangs as a new iteration of an old cycle. I've become intimately familiar with how stories of fleeing begin. This past spring, amid fierce debate over Trump's calls for mass deportations, I went to Brentwood to see how they end.
Long Island is home to some of the richest real estate in the country, with houses in the Hamptons regularly selling for upward of $10 million. It's also home to the third-largest community of Salvadorans in the US, after Los Angeles and Washington, DC.
The island's first Latino immigrants were Puerto Ricans. They flocked to Nassau and Suffolk Counties in the 1950s to tend gardens and wash dishes for white families, who were leaving New York City in large numbers. Many affluent suburbs passed housing covenants to keep blacks and Latinos out. As a result, nearby towns like Brentwood became immigrant enclaves. Over the years, white flight struck again, the tax base dwindled, and these poorer suburbs became known for their struggling schools and high crime rates.
Salvadorans started arriving in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was sending more than $1 million a day to El Salvador's right-wing government in an effort to stamp out leftist guerrillas aligned with socialist revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua. The 12-year civil war left 80,000 dead and more than a million displaced. In 1986, Suffolk County declared itself a place of sanctuary for Central American refugees, but by 1993, this designation had been sacked amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment.
Among other xenophobic actions, local governments attempted to ban gatherings of day laborers, limit the number of people sharing a rented home, and pass "English-only laws" for government agencies. Some fear such legislation might make a comeback. When President Trump took office on January 20, the Spanish version of WhiteHouse.gov disappeared. It remains unavailable.
At the same time, a backlash was brewing in Los Angeles, where a ragtag group of Salvadoran teenagers—mostly stoners and metalheads—had started calling itself the Mara Salvatrucha. The gang hardened after facing white, black, and Mexican rivals on the streets and in the prisons. By the end of the 1990s, the MS-13 had gained a reputation for savagery and had sparked copycat groups in other immigrant communities, including on Long Island, where it was declared the largest gang in Nassau County in 2001.
In her 2009 book, Gangs in Garden City, journalist Sarah Garland explains the conditions that make immigrant kids vulnerable to joining gangs: discrimination, marginalization, language barriers, parents who work long hours to send money back home, the disorienting feeling of straddling two worlds but belonging to none. On Long Island and in suburbs across the country, Garland writes, gangs' "rise to power revealed not what the gangs offered to a new generation of immigrants and their children, but what America did not."
Sergio Argueta was one of those immigrant children. His mother left her village in El Salvador to escape poverty and violence in 1976 and settled in Hempstead—on Long Island—where Argueta was born in 1978. As a teenager, he hung with a small Salvadoran gang called Redondel Pride. After a trip to buy a shotgun ended up with one friend accidentally killed and another locked up for manslaughter, Argueta ditched the gang and founded STRONG—Struggling to Reunite Our New Generation. STRONG started as little more than a refuge for kids fleeing the streets, but it evolved into a respected NGO with 14 staff members.
Argueta, who has a shaved head, a goatee, and a thick New York accent, couldn't believe that after nearly two decades calling on deaf ears to acknowledge Long Island's gang problem, he had found a sympathetic listener in none other than Donald Trump. But the administration was getting the story wrong—MS-13 was born in Los Angeles, not Central America—and the president's proposed solutions—a border wall, iron-fist policing, mass deportations—couldn't be further from Argueta's "prevention and intervention" approach. Prevention, according to Argueta, involves building ties with parents, schools, and police to create a safety net for at-risk youth; intervention involves rehab programs, community service, and counseling.
While California spends millions of dollars a year on gang prevention, and counties in Maryland and Virginia have invested resources in improving relationships between police and immigrants, New York politicians have been stingy. For months leading up to the murders of Cuevas and Mickens, STRONG's executive director, Rahsmia Zatar, had been submitting proposals to Suffolk County for a gang-prevention program like the one she runs in the neighboring county, Nassau. For months, Zatar had been rebuffed. Then two teenage girls wound up dead, and within 72 hours, the county executive's office was demanding a plan for how STRONG could help Brentwood.
Brentwood sits just off the Long Island Expressway, halfway between New York City and the Hamptons. The town of 60,000 is 68 percent Latino, with more than 17,000 residents from El Salvador. Its leafy streets and dilapidated ranch houses resemble any working-class suburb, but Spanish signs on its storefronts advertise immigration lawyers, remittance services, and Central America's most famous fried chicken joint, Pollo Campero.
After the murders last September, everyone had a list of problems, but solutions were scarce. Parents demanded more security cameras and metal detectors in the schools; school officials banned gang-associated colors and symbols; politicians proposed outlawing machete sales to minors. Blame landed where it always did: on immigrants, in particular on the 4,500 "unaccompanied minors" from Central America who'd ended up in Suffolk County. A divide began to develop between those who believe that the government hasn't been doing enough to keep immigrant kids out of gangs and those who believe that the government hasn't been doing enough to keep immigrant kids out—period.
So when Suffolk County offered STRONG $500,000 to start a gang-prevention program in Brentwood High School, Argueta hesitated. "All those kids were missing for months, and the schools didn't do anything, the police didn't do anything, the social services department didn't do anything? And we're supposed to go in and make things better?" he asked. Zatar—who has Dominican and Palestinian roots, green eyes, and a sharp tongue—set him straight: "If not us, Sergio, who else?"
Between 1996 and 2002, US immigration authorities deported 30,696 convicted criminals to Central America. Many were gang members. More than 10,000 were sent back to El Salvador, a war-torn country the size of Massachusetts with around 6.5 million residents. A weak police force, unemployed veterans, and leftover guns created the conditions for gangs to flourish. Continued deportations—including more than 3 million under the Obama administration—provided a steady flow of recruits. As violence broke out among rival gangs and the government cracked down with an iron fist, increasing numbers of young people began heading north once again. "The experts, the congressmen, that president [Clinton] didn't have a clue what circular migration was," writes Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez in A History of Violence. "They spat straight up into the sky."
Argueta doesn't dispute the connection between the recent wave of immigrants and the uptick in gang violence. But he wants people to understand the lives these kids lead before they end up in the suburbs. In El Salvador in 2015, one out of every 1,000 people was murdered—for failing to pay extortion fees, for crossing into forbidden territory, even for scoring a goal against a team of gang members. Fleeing to the US is equally unpleasant. Trump's homeland security secretary, John Kelly, described migration through Mexico as "a course north that rivals Dante's journey into hell." Narcos and bandits assault migrants. Eighty percent of girls are raped. Once in the US, asylum applicants spend weeks in freezing-cold detention centers, rejoin parents they haven't seen since they were toddlers, and enroll in overcrowded schools. Many migrants learn what one Honduran teenager tells the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli in her new book, Tell Me How It Ends: "Hempstead is a shithole of pandilleros [gang members], just like Tegucigalpa."
I spent the Friday before spring break in Brentwood High School, which, according to federal data, has grown by around 750 students in the last six years. Many newcomers are immigrants who speak little English and have what the district calls "interrupted formal education," a catchall phrase that can mean anything from a few months' delay to having never set foot in a classroom.
Many migrants learn what one Honduran teenager tells the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli in her new book, Tell Me How It Ends: "Hempstead is a shithole of pandilleros [gang members], just like Tegucigalpa."
Back in 2014, at the height of the unaccompanied-minor crisis, some school districts on Long Island refused to admit newly arrived Central American kids, citing space concerns and a lack of paperwork. Both excuses are illegal under federal law. Brentwood School District, the largest in the state outside New York City, did not turn kids away, but it struggled to accommodate them. The district was already sore from budget cuts following the 2008 economic crisis, when teachers were laid off, extracurriculars were eliminated, and the school day was reduced from nine to eight periods. Today, Brentwood High School has only two social workers and two school psychologists for 4,533 students.
Seventy-five percent of the high school's budget comes from state and federal aid, and while classroom teachers have been hired to respond to increasing enrollment, the government is "following the same formula" with little attention to the unique needs of immigrant students, Principal Richard Loeschner told me. English Language Learner classes (ELL) contain around 30 students ranging from 14 to 21 years old. While some are successful—I met one young man who wants to run for president of El Salvador—others spend years in the district without ever learning English; the graduation rate among ELL students is 56 percent. Loeschner recognizes that the school is losing the battle for these kids. "They're ripe for the picking," he said.
When I visited one ELL classroom, students were leafing through binders they'd made as a getting-to-know-you exercise. The binders told tales of poverty, abandonment, abuse, rape, and murder. These stories were hidden behind colorful covers, tucked between pages about favorite foods and bad habits. When the bell rang, the students headed toward the door, chattering in Spanish. The teacher gently nudged a baby-faced boy who'd fallen asleep at his desk. "He works the night shift," the teacher whispered.
I picked up a plain blue binder and flipped past the "People I Admire" page—which featured Bob Marley and the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández—to the "Autobiography" section. "My mother was only 13 years old when she brought me into this world," it began.
Of course it wasn't her fault. I have always thought we are humans and we make mistakes and learn from them and I'm no one to judge. Time went by and when I was four years old my mother abandoned me to be with a man who became the father of my younger sister. She left me in the street where I had a very difficult life. I lived, ate, and spent all my time in the trash. When I was six years old a tragedy happened. Because I slept in the street, an older man abused me. It was terrible, because I didn't understand what was happening. I just cried. Time went by and when I turned nine years old, I got very sick, and spent a month in a coma. My mother came to identify me as her son and asked my forgiveness. I told her that I loved her and six months later she left for the United States and I was alone again. A boy showed up in town and said he was my older brother. He picked me up off the street and I lived with him and we went to school together until one day a tragedy happened and they killed him in front of me. That was very hard for me. I went crazy and got lost for a while. Then one day some people wanted to kill me, so I called my mother and she said tomorrow you will come to the United States.
Four months after Kayla Cuevas was murdered, her mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, visited STRONG. At first, she was skeptical about the "prevention and intervention" approach. What happened to her daughter, she said, was evidence of social decay in Brentwood. "I graduated in 1987, and we had fights, but nothing like this," she said. The wave of "South Americans" had strained the town's resources and introduced violence of a kind she'd never seen before. Her daughter's body was so badly beaten it was unrecognizable.
"Everybody has a right to live in the United States, to live that American dream," she said. But at what cost? Argueta and Zatar listened sympathetically and then asked Rodriguez to see her daughter's killers not as monsters but as troubled kids who could've been helped.
When I met Rodriguez in March, she seemed caught between STRONG's calls to support gang-involved youth and Trump's calls to get rid of "MS-13 scum." We talked in a dark living room that had been converted into a shrine for Cuevas—framed photographs, silk flowers, basketball trophies, a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary. Rodriguez's face was ashen, her voice flat, except when she talked about Cuevas. "Kayla was an old soul," she said. At one point, her seven-year-old peeked down from upstairs and asked permission to ride her bike with a friend. "Absolutely not," Rodriguez answered. She explained that the nearby park has been closed since city officials were discovered dumping toxic waste on its grounds in 2014, and the other parks are known gang hangouts.
Rodriguez appreciates Trump's attention to Long Island's gang problem, and she supports the administration's plans to tighten the border and keep "terrorists and criminals" out. She said she has nothing against immigrants—she grew up in Puerto Rico and has "hardworking" Salvadoran friends who want a better life for their kids in the US. "I'm all for that," she said. "But that particular grouping is making a lot of noise, negativity, murders."
Still, Rodriguez has joined the fight to bring STRONG to Brentwood. She has spent hours doing online research and watching 60 Minutes to understand the violence Central American kids are fleeing. "Some of these kids come from countries where they were traumatized, they were raped, they were molested by their own family members," she said. She believes that the schools should be doing more to help immigrants kids adjust and reaching out to their parents when they struggle. Rodriguez has retained a lawyer and is considering suing Brentwood School District for its failure to mediate the conflict between her daughter and another student; she claims her daughter waited five months to see a guidance counselor. "There's no intervention, there's no prevention, there's no one-to-one," she said. "All you get is a piece of paper that tells you your child is being suspended for 'insubordination.'"
When STRONG hosted a meet and greet for Brentwood parents at a local church, Rodriguez sat in the front row, wearing sweatpants and a black ski cap, listening intently. "We tell the schools to give us the kids they hate, the ones they say are difficult to engage," said Zatar, STRONG's director. "We want those kids, because we believe they have untapped potential." Rodriguez nodded. Later, she told me that schools often label kids like her daughter "troublesome" for getting in fights after "being bullied or intimidated." By some accounts, Cuevas had friends in the Bloods, a black and Puerto Rican gang that rivals the MS-13. By all accounts, she didn't like being pushed around.
I asked Rodriguez if STRONG could have helped her daughter. She hesitated. "No," she finally said. "Kayla wasn't a gang member." I told this to Zatar, who, without missing a beat, replied, "The kids who killed Kayla didn't start out as gang members, either. Society made them gang members. We made them gang members."
On March 2, US attorney Robert Capers announced charges against 13 alleged MS-13 members for seven murders, including those of Cuevas, Nisa Mickens, and José Peña-Hernández. Reporters at the press conference asked question after question about the defendants' immigration status: How many were in the country illegally? Were they unaccompanied minors? Would they be deported? Capers said ten of the defendants were illegal immigrants but declined to say whether any would be deported. Later, Suffolk County police commissioner Timothy Sini said seven had come through the unaccompanied-minors program.
The arrests were a victory for Sini, a former federal prosecutor who inherited a scandal-ridden department with a strained relationship to Latinos. In 2009, the Suffolk County Police Department became the subject of a federal discrimination lawsuit after failing to thoroughly investigate several hate crimes. In 2014, a Suffolk County police sergeant was arrested for stealing from Latino drivers during traffic stops. In 2015, Sini's predecessor, James Burke, was indicted on charges of both beating a handcuffed heroin addict who tried to steal pornography from him and of covering up the assault.
Two years earlier, Burke had abruptly pulled out of the Long Island FBI Gang Task Force, further weakening the department's ties to the immigrant community. "We had established ties with every MS-13 clique. We were proactive because we would get tips about planned killings, about gun buys," retired detective John Oliva told Newsday. "Here it is, years later, and you don't have those sources."
When Sini took over in 2015, he rejoined the gang task force, but he has struggled to convince Latinos that police are on their side. In October, when the investigation into Cuevas's and Mickens's murders turned up the skeletons of three Latino teenagers, some immigrant advocates accused police of failing to sufficiently investigate when the boys disappeared months earlier. In December, Suffolk County sheriff Vincent DeMarco invited federal immigration authorities back into the county jails, reversing a 2014 policy that prohibited such collaboration. Recent ICE raids in cities across the US have netted scores of alleged MS-13 members, but have also caught parents and students whose only crime was crossing the border.
Families whose children have been subpoenaed in gang-related cases have expressed fear that police will fail to protect them from gang members and from immigration authorities.
Immigrants are responding to such moves by severing ties with the government and heading underground. Police departments in Los Angeles, Houston, and Denver have announced drops in sexual assault reporting by Latinos, while social service organizations have seen legal immigrants un-enrolling their children—including US citizens—from programs like Medicaid and food stamps. The Nassau County District Attorney's Office of Immigrant Affairs told the New York Times in April that its tip line had received no calls since December. Make the Road New York, an advocacy group with an office in Brentwood, said families whose children have been subpoenaed in gang-related cases have expressed fear that police will fail to protect them from gang members and from immigration authorities.
This fear was palpable when I spoke to the parents of a teenage girl who has gotten tangled up with the MS-13. The girl, whom I'll call Jenny, came to the US after being raised by her aunt and grandmother in El Salvador. She crossed Mexico twice and got deported once before making it to the US. After years on Long Island, she still speaks broken English.
When Jenny disappeared last year, her parents called the police. As far as they know, prosecutors declined to press charges against the young men they consider their daughter's captors, even when Jenny returned home drug-addled and teary and confessed she'd been in a sexual relationship with a gang member several years her senior. He has since been arrested for murder. Jenny's parents are afraid to return to the police after reports circulated that local law enforcement was collaborating with immigration authorities.
Such stories frustrate Sini. He has stressed that the department investigates all missing-persons reports and never inquires into the immigration status of victims or witnesses. He has offered to do "anything necessary" in exchange for information about gangs, including relocation housing and immigration benefits.
Jenny, for her part, seemed annoyed at her parents' distress. "My house is like a prison," she said, rolling her eyes. She showed me amateur rap videos by MS-13 members on Long Island and confessed that she trusts the gangsters more than other students—certainly more than school counselors or police officers. "If you're loyal to the gang, they don't betray you," she said. She lamented the recent arrests of MS-13 members. School isn't as fun without them.
In December 2015, according to court documents obtained by the research group Insight Crime, MS-13 leaders from several states met up in Virginia to design a plan for the gang's expansion in the US. Back in El Salvador, a truce between the gangs and the government had crumbled, and police were waging war on gang members. The MS-13 needed help buying guns. (Unlike Mexican drug cartels, Central American gangs subsist mainly on petty extortion. It's not a lucrative business model—most gang members make less than $10 a week.)
The summit worried US authorities, who were already noticing an "unprecedented" level of MS-13 activity on the East Coast. They blamed the failed gang truce, increasing violence in Central America, and the immigration spike that followed. Still, according to the FBI, the MS-13 has only about 200 "hardcore members" on Long Island and between 6,000 to 10,000 members across the US—the same range as in 2004, and a fraction of the estimated 40,000 members in El Salvador.
The gang still exists in suburbs like Brentwood because every time cops round up a violent cohort, new members step in to take their places. Sergeant Mike Marino, the head of Nassau County's gang-investigation squad, thinks "uncontrolled immigration" is partly to blame, but admits the vast majority of undocumented kids are not gang members when they enter the country. "Let's say the amount of gang members coming in is 5 percent—that's still manageable for law enforcement," Marino said. "It's when they start recruiting kids here that we have a problem."
A plainclothes detective sitting to my right pointed out several alleged gang members accused in the murders of Cuevas and Mickens. "After a while, they start to blend together," the detective said.
This is an important distinction, says Victor Rios, a sociologist and former gang member from Los Angeles. His book, Human Targets, argues that police and schools often push kids into gangs rather than pulling them away. "If we want heroin-selling, gangbanging, car-thieving, juvenile delinquents to reform and work toward developing productive lives, then institutions, especially schools and law enforcement, must find ways to improve the quality of their interactions with these youths," he writes.
One of the biggest problems, Rios says, is the tendency to lump all gang members together, when, in truth, there are two things going on: a tiny nucleus committing extreme acts of violence, and a much larger periphery that's just trying to fit in—kids like Jenny. "The majority of gang members eventually outgrow the gang, but when our message is just 'eradicate, incarcerate, and deport' without a two-pronged strategy that provides support to the second group, you risk losing them and creating a situation of perpetual crime and violence," he says.
Sergio Argueta sees this happening on Long Island. He has been a social worker at Uniondale High School since 2014, and last fall, two of his students were killed in gang-related shootings. He also knew the students arrested for the murders. None were gang members when he met them a few years ago. All told him they wanted to avoid that lifestyle.
"Their transition was so quick—it was mind-boggling," Argueta said. "So now I'm trying all these approaches, I'm trying tough love, I'm trying the sympathetic counselor, the cool friend. These are approaches that have worked for me in the past, but they're not working anymore."
Argueta hopes to build a more resilient safety net in Brentwood, where STRONG's high school program is supposed to start next fall (Suffolk County has yet to finalize the contract; meanwhile, New York State has pledged an additional $300,000). Jenny strikes me as an ideal candidate. Her father worries she won't make it that far. "At this point, I'm just waiting for them to kill her," he said. "They know where she walks and where she gets off the bus. I've told her, 'Hija, if they're threatening you, give me their names and all their information.' But she doesn't want to tell me anything. She's passive in the face of everything that's happening here."
On April 10, Evelyn Rodriguez sat in the front row of a federal courtroom where MS-13 members accused in the murders of Cuevas, Mickens, and Peña-Hernández were appearing before a judge. The 11 defendants wore orange, green, and white prison uniforms and were given headsets so they could hear Spanish translations of the proceedings. Some grinned and joked around. Others appeared on the verge of tears. A plainclothes detective sitting to my right pointed out Selvin Chávez, Enrique Portillo, Jairo Sáenz, and Alexi Sáenz, who are all accused in the murders of Cuevas and Mickens. "After a while, they start to blend together," the detective said. His partner on my left smirked. "This is just one crop," he said. "It's a seasonal thing for us."
Outside the courthouse, a striking white building that towers over the surrounding woodlands, Argueta, Zatar, and a few dozen parents held a peace demonstration. They carried signs with hopeful messages: be what you needed growing up, no more violence, #brentwoodstrong. Argueta took the microphone and urged support for young gang members: "There will be individuals sitting on both sides of that courtroom, and the fact of the matter is, there are so many similarities between both of those families," he said. "We need to stop the next individual from ending up in a six-foot-deep hole or a six-foot-wide jail cell."
After the hearing, Rodriguez bought flowers and headed to Cuevas's grave. Argueta drove home to spend the afternoon with his daughters. Temperatures climbed into the 70s, and for the first time since the murders, Brentwood's sidewalks filled with kids on bikes and skateboards.
Two days later, four more bodies were found.