The notoriously brutal MS-13 gang recruits undocumented people from abroad, making them a perfect foil for Donald Trump. The only problem: Their victims are often immigrants, too.
(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
When somebody gets attacked with a machete on Long Island, the cops generally have a good idea where to start looking for suspects.
Such was the case in Westbury late last month, when a 19-year-old man took a machete to the stomach before narrowly escaping gunfire. Three alleged members of the notorious street gang MS-13 were charged with attempted murder in the case.
The broad and heavy knife was also employed in the savage murders of two high school girls in Brentwood last September. Nisa Mickens, 15, and her close friend Kayla Cuevas, 16, were beaten with baseball bats and slashed in the heads and faces with machetes, cops say. Feds arrested four alleged MS-13 members in March for their murders as part of an operation that netted 13 arrests for seven killings—all allegedly perpetrated by members of the gang.
MS-13 is a growing criminal organization with roots in El Salvador, Honduras, and LA that the FBI once described as "exceedingly violent." That's helped them become the Trump administration's latest boogeyman—a group not entirely unlike ISIS in that its terrifying tactics are used to justify the president's hardline immigration policies.
"MS-13—you know about MS-13? It's not pleasant for them anymore. It's not pleasant for them anymore. That's a bad group," Trump said while addressing the National Rifle Association's annual gathering in Atlanta on April 28. "Not pleasant for MS-13. Get them the hell out of here, right? Get them out."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions underscored Trump's comments in a speech delivered the same day to cops and reporters in Central Islip, where four severely mutilated bodies were recently left strewn in the woods near a children's park. Cops suspect MS-13 in that attack, too.
"The MS-13 motto is kill, rape and control," Sessions said, referring to a well-publicized axiom the feds attribute to the group. "Our motto is justice for victims and consequences for criminals. That's how simple it is. Prosecute them, and after they've been convicted, if they're not here lawfully, they're going to be deported."
Check out the VICE News investigation of gangs in El Salvador.
It's not exactly surprising that Trump, a nativist New Yorker with strong ties to the suburbs of Long Island, would latch on to horrific acts perpetrated by MS-13, a group composed in no insignificant part by undocumented immigrants or their children. For one thing, the gang is not only freakishly brutal but also sadistically petty: The 19-year-old victim who was slashed in the stomach was allegedly targeted by MS-13 gang members Jose Hernandez, Miguel Urias Arguenta, and Fidel Hernandez because he defended his right to laugh in public. He is believed to have told the men, "I can laugh at anything I want," before they almost disemboweled him for it.
"This is a gang that thrives on pure violence," explained John Oliva, a former detective with the Suffolk County Police Department who worked on a federal task force targeting MS-13 several years ago. "You look at the Latin Kings or the Bloods, and they're focused on making money more often than not. MS-13 is focused on violence."
Oliva, a fluent Spanish speaker with Cuban roots who's praised for his investigative skills by peers, worked to make roughly a dozen arrests with his task force before it was dismantled, possibly at the behest of disgraced former police chief James Burke, in 2012. He was later convicted of leaking details to the press, which supporters claimed was necessary given the department's well-known issues with corruption.
The former detective still remembers the Argueta murders—a notorious crime in Suffolk County lore in which a 19-year-old mother, Vanessa Argueta, and her two-year-old son, Diego Torres, were lured into the woods with the promise of dinner and then brutally executed over a perceived slight. Juan "Cruzito" Garcia, one of the killers and an ex-boyfriend of Argueta, fled to El Salvador following the murders, appearing on the FBI's ten most wanted list for a day before being tracked down in Nicaragua and convicted.
Oliva believes cops are not likely to pay much attention to political rhetoric about the group, instead keeping their focus on crimes like that one.
"Police don't need any added incentive to do their jobs," he said, referring in part to emotional pull he felt after first learning about the Argueta murders. "We're focused on, Let's just get the bad guy."
The ex-cop explained that MS-13 is broken into neighborhood cliques on Long Island and throughout the country, with many employing a three-tier chain of command. The gang feeds off violence and control, but it's also very much a criminal enterprise that brings in hoards of cash.
The investigators working the street may not be paying much attention to the alarm sounded by the Trump administration, but Suffolk County sheriff Vincent DeMarco certainly is. He hyped Sessions's visit on a podcast this past weekend, praising Trump's immigration crackdown and knocking the Obama White House for being too soft.
"A large portion of the MS-13 gang members are here illegally," DeMarco said.
Albert DeAmicis, a former captain with the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections in Pennsylvania who now teaches at LaRoche College's Justice, Law and Security Criminal Justice Program, believes Trump's aggressive stance on immigration could be effective in reigning in MS-13 because of the group's reliance on fresh recruits from El Salvador. "I think it could really help," DeAmicis told me. "The group has really grown by sneaking people into the country."
DeAmicis authored a frequently cited research paper on the group's origins hosted by the Department of Justice's National Criminal Justice Reference Service, which suggests the gang started after men and women escaped from El Salvador's horrific civil war and settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s. There, Mexican gangs apparently bullied the new immigrants until they formed their own as a means of self-preservation.
The name, Mara Salvatrucha, comes from the words for an El Salvadorian gang and the label used for peasant guerrillas who fought in the country's civil war, according to DeAmicis. The number 13, which signifies the letter "M" (the 13th letter in the alphabet), was apparently added as an homage to the Mexican Mafia, who eventually began to employ MS-13 members as assassins who instill fear.
"The reason they go to the machete is because it's more violent," DeAmicis said of their predilection for the weapon. "It's to shock and scare people."
The scare tactics have certainly burnished MS-13's reputation: In Jackson Heights, Queens, this past weekend, a man falsely claimed three men stabbed and robbed him while shouting "MS-13," cops say; police now suspect the man got into a dispute while drinking, and that "MS-13" was never really shouted.
Civil rights and immigrants groups acknowledge the threat MS-13 poses to people on Long Island and throughout the country. But they can't help viewing the Trump administration's interest in the gang with a degree of skepticism. After all, this is the same guy who wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico despite the flow of immigration reversing in recent years.
"This is, lets be clear, a battle between fear and courage. That is the message that Long Island is sending to Jeff Sessions today. We are not afraid of you and we will stand up with our immigrant brothers and sisters," Salvador G. Sarmiento of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said during a speech at a protest against the attorney general's visit, according to Long Island WINS, an immigrant rights advocacy group.
The White House has consistently sought to amplify the criminality of select immigrants: Two days before Trump and Sessions spoke about MS-13, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly opened an office called the Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement (VOICE), which he said would keep victims informed of the immigration proceedings of criminal suspects. VOICE will be staffed by members of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency Trump eagerly wants to expand.
On Long Island, Ruthie Epstein, a senior policy advisor for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said civil liberties advocates are advising law enforcement to consider not cooperating with the crackdown emanating from on high. "At the local level, we can still say that we don't want our tax payer dollars to facilitate federal immigration enforcement," she said.
The advocate acknowledged that Trump is not alone in wanting to rev up the deportation process, citing the Obama administration's record-breaking pace. The difference lies in the "bigoted rhetoric" Trump uses about immigration, she said, which is feeding unprecedented anxiety in immigrant communities. Immigrants and their descendants comprise almost all MS-13 victims, and might be discouraged from offering tips to police amid such historic hostility in Washington.
"To a large degree, the administration has the authority to do what they're doing, which is why we need immigration reform," Epstein told me. "But [his rhetoric on immigration] makes people afraid to go to school, to go to public health clinics, to go to work—it's creating chilling effects."
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