Police Brutality and Deportation Won't Stop the Deadly MS-13 Gang

We talked to local cops and community activists about Trump's favorite target: a murderous gang comprised partly of immigrants he does not understand.

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Aug 8 2017, 6:00am

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in front of photos related to the MS-13 gang at the White House July 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Late on April 11, two women invited five young men into a wooded area surrounding an elementary school and a home for the disabled in the Long Island town of Central Islip, New York. According to police, the women did so with the understanding that a dozen members of MS-13, a growing gang with roots in Central America and Los Angeles, would murder their companions. After being signaled via text message, police say, the gang descended on the five men, mutilating them with a sadist's arsenal of knives, wooden clubs, and machetes.

One of the young men managed to escape and survive. The other four were found dead the next evening.

President Donald Trump drew condemnation (and at least a few cheers) from cops across America late last month when he spoke about MS-13 at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, about four miles from where the murders took place. Local police and the FBI have been battling MS-13 in fits and starts for the better part of a decade, but the president hyped the gang's danger with unusual bluster—even for him. He called members "animals" and at one point seemed to encourage cops to illegally rough-up suspects. The president also asked Congress to add 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to a staff that already exceeds 20,000 to help disrupt gang activity.

It wasn't the first time Trump visited Long Island to rage against a nefarious gang comprised in part of his favorite targets: undocumented people from Latin America. But interviews with the people who have actually fought the gang Trump fan Oliver North calls "the ISIS of the Western Hemisphere" paint a picture of a spiraling problem compounded by a legacy of local corruption and brutality. One thing they generally agree on is that Trump's bellicose rhetoric and his attorney general Jeff Session's policies have yet to change anything in the area.

Meanwhile, the violence is showing no signs of letting up.

Walter Barrientos, 32, is Long Island organizing director for Make the Road New York, an immigrants rights group based in the same town where Trump gave his speech. He's worked with a lot of people impacted by MS-13 violence over the years and believes economic problems are the primary factors driving young Latino men and women to join the gang—not a lust for violence. Many of those who join the gang are the children of law-abiding, legal immigrant parents, he said.

"Ultimately, you have kids susceptible to gang recruitment because of disenfranchisement and disconnection from society in Suffolk," Barrientos told me. "You have someone in high school and their parents, who may be of Central American origin, work two or three low-wage jobs to make ends meet. So, they're never home to supervise them."

Barrientos is careful to note he believes immigrants in Suffolk have a fraught relationship with authority due to racial discrimination that long predates Trump's political ascent. He would know: His family came to Long Island from Guatemala when he was 11 years old in hopes of escaping the gang violence that had consumed their neighborhood back home, he said.

"My analysis of the situation is that this is less of a gang problem in Suffolk than it is a growing disconnect between immigrants and the police," Barrientos said. "Immigrants want to trust the police on Long Island, but they keep getting let down."

Since 2013, the feds have been keeping tabs on Suffolk police after finding evidence of systemic violence against Hispanic people in the area. But when it comes to allegations of discrimination in traffic stops, for example, tension has persisted. Barrientos recalled the case of Sergeant Scott Greene, an ex-cop convicted just last year of stealing cash from immigrants during traffic stops. He said Suffolk PD ignores community fears about anti-immigrant vigilantism, concerns that were perhaps most dramatically stoked by the murder of Marcelo Lucero in a train station parking lot in Patchogue back in 2008. Four teens were convicted of a hate crime following the incident, which helped draw the federal scrutiny in the first place. But subsequent episodes of prejudice, Barrientos said, have stoked tension that might lead some locals to be vulnerable to exploitation by MS-13.

"It is unfortunate, and also insulting, that the message the president gave here confirmed what many people in community already fear about law enforcement," he told me.

Timothy Sini, the current Suffolk County police commissioner and a Democratic candidate for district attorney, vociferously condemned Trump's strange plug for police brutality after the speech. But he also insisted his officers are not engaged in widespread discrimination. The area's top cop noted his department had installed cameras in some precincts following the indictment of his predecessor, James Burke; Burke was convicted last year for beating the man who'd stolen his bag of sex toys while the suspect was handcuffed in a police interrogation room.

Sini added that a camera was recently added to the first precinct after allegations of rape by a woman who was arrested on an outstanding warrant there earlier this year. He said the county prides itself on outreach to the Latino community, having adopted a requirement that 10 percent of every class of new recruits be Spanish speaking. (Census data pegs the Hispanic share of the county's population at closer to 20 percent.)

Commissioner Sini flatly rejected the idea that the police might be contributing to the isolation of Latinos in Suffolk—or the growth of MS-13. "The points [about police prejudice against Latino residents] are not an accurate portrayal of our department, and the people you are talking to know that I feel that way," he told me sharply.

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of Long Island Wins, a nonprofit that also focuses on immigration issues, said local cops have done more outreach to marginalized communities in recent years—but can still do better. The new regime in Washington has fueled local fire, she suggested, with immigrants here worried "any undocumented immigrant, regardless of their criminal record" is a target for deportation under Trump. Evidence suggests such fears are well-founded.

"Trump is using MS-13 as a scapegoat for his immigration policy," Slutsky said. "Ultimately, his language is making this gang even bolder, and adding oxygen to them by boosting name recognition."

Of course, some in local law enforcement are grateful for the president's unusually generous doses of attention.

One active-duty Long Island cop who supports the president and asked not to be named to avoid trouble with his department rejected the idea that Trump's speech or policies might be making the situation worse. He also accused people in the media of downplaying violence perpetrated by the gang, in part because they haven't seen the dismembered bodies left behind by the group up close. MS-13, which prides itself on an ability to instill fear in others, is notorious for leaving behind crime scenes that resemble real-life horror films.

"A good number, if not the majority of police officers support Trump because he supports them," the cop told me, differentiating rank-and-file officers from more political figures in management positions like Sini. "They are disappointed that their higher ups went all PC. After Trump voices support for them, they kick dirt in his face."

The officer insisted Trump "obviously" wasn't suggesting police officers beat up criminals with a quip about not being "too nice" when placing suspects in squad cars. Instead, the cop said, Trump was merely asking them not to coddle violent offenders.

It should be noted that beyond just cops, Trump's loud brand of nationalism seems to play well in Suffolk County. He demolished other GOP candidates here during the New York primary in April 2016, and then toppled Hillary Clinton in the general election after Barack Obama carried the county in 2008 and 2012.

The problem, critics say, is that Trump and his attorney general don't seem to have a comprehensive strategy for eradicating gang violence beyond targeting undocumented people, ramping up the War on Drugs again, and hurling rhetorical grenades. If they do, it hasn't materialized yet on Long Island.

Robert Trotta, a former Suffolk cop who worked on a slew of MS-13 cases as part of a highly regarded FBI task force and now serves as a Suffolk county legislator, told me that "of course deportation works," because it sets an example. But he does not believe deporting immigrants is a plan to end the MS-13 saga.

"What's needed is resources and intelligence sharing," Trotta said, referring to his time working on the task force with the feds. "It's criminal justice 101."

Trotta added that the relationship between the FBI and Suffolk County Police disintegrated rapidly under the notoriously paranoid leadership of Burke, under whom the task force was temporarily dismantled in 2012. But Trotta was also critical of Sini's leadership, suggesting the connections had never been fully repaired after Burke's ouster.

(Sini, for his part, called Burke's tenure a "disgrace," and said aggressive efforts had been made to improve intelligence sharing between local and federal law enforcement when it comes to MS-13 since his tenure began last year.)

John Oliva, a former Suffolk cop who served with Trotta on the task force targeting MS-13, said he never encountered a delay or backlog of cases with ICE during the Bush or Obama administrations. That leaves open the question as to what might be gained by bolstering the agency's manpower. The former officer also estimated that roughly half of the gang members he encountered were illegal immigrants, leaving the other half potentially unaffected by the nearly 40 percent uptick in immigration arrests under Trump, as of May.

"It works," Oliva said of deportations. "But it isn't the only thing that works."

Oliva's own parents came to the US illegally from Cuba, and despite his belief in the effectiveness of using deportation to disrupt gang activity, he backed up Barrientos's take on why people join MS-13 in the first place.

"These kids may have moms and dads who are actually very decent people, very hard workers, but the kids get involved in the gang because they're scared to say no," Oliva told me.

Most MS-13 members he encountered had nine-to-five jobs during the week as dishwashers, laborers for landscaping companies, or in pizza joints, Olivia said. "You could have an MS-13 member working right there in the kitchen," he added, referring to the diner at which we were eating breakfast.

The need for a more holistic approach to a long-term problem was a common theme among the locals I interviewed—even if Trump isn't known for his delicate touch. Barrientos, referring to the president's call for an increase in ICE officers, argued Trump had fundamentally misdiagnosed the root problems that cause gang activity.

"You want to get rid of MS-13?" he asked. "I'll tell you how to do it. Add 10,000 social workers and teachers instead."

Follow Michael Edison Hayden on Twitter.

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