Latino street gangs led by MS-13 have tried to lure Long Island's newest child immigrants into their ranks, police said, causing concern among local investigators as well as immigrant advocacy groups.
The violent, drug-dealing gangs have been vying for new members among the more than 3,000 children younger than 18 who resettled in Nassau and Suffolk counties between September 2013 and September 2014, authorities said.
Many of those kids were fleeing violence carried out by MS-13 and other gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
"They were targeted by the Latino gangs that were already established here," Det. Sgt. Mike Marino, head of the Nassau County Police Department's gang section, said of high-school-age immigrants on Long Island. "The gangs did try to recruit some of them."
The recruitment push has met with limited success so far, attracting only a small number of new members, police said.
Some gangs recruit kids by befriending them, then pitching the benefits of membership. Others apply social pressure, or use money, drugs and threats of violence to bring in new recruits.
Authorities remain troubled by the trend, especially with 14,773 unaccompanied minors having arrived here since Oct. 1, 2014.
"We've had a few kids tell us they're afraid because they were traumatized by gangs, particularly by MS-13 in El Salvador and Honduras, where it's a strong gang, and have then encountered them here in the United States," said Patrick Young, an immigration attorney who is program director at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood. "A lot of kids are kind of surprised that they came here and encountered the same gang, which is smaller than it is where they came from, but still frightening for them."
Localities and school systems throughout the nation are still struggling to absorb the roughly 53,500 children who arrived in the United States last fiscal year.
Those minors continue to move through a multistep immigration court process to decide whether they can stay or are to be deported.
During last year's immigration wave, Nassau police learned of MS-13 and other gangs' recruitment efforts, Marino said. They worked to counter their tactics by making arrests, strategizing with immigrant families and collaborating with educators.
"Fortunately, we were able to intervene at an early enough point where . . . we're down to a very minimal level of success with that recruitment," Marino said.
In Suffolk, residents of gang-plagued communities say MS-13 and other organizations such as the Latin Kings, Netas and Sureños aggressively pursued potential recruits in Riverhead, Central Islip, Huntington Station and other neighborhoods with established Central American communities.
"They take children [for recruits], they take lives, they'll take anything," Wilfredo Serrano, 56, a small-business owner in Central Islip, said of MS-13 in Nassau and Suffolk. He asked that his store not be identified for fear a local MS-13 clique would harm him or destroy his shop. "I came from . . . [El Salvador] to get away from them [MS-13], but the same crime is happening here."
He continued: "Now they've been going after the new arrivals . . . kids who are very vulnerable and have already been through the worst in life."
William Madigan, chief of detectives for the Suffolk County Police Department, said Latino gangs have long looked to new immigrant communities on Long Island to replenish their ranks.
"That's par for the course," Madigan said.
MS-13, formally known as La Mara Salvatrucha, is a loose confederation of gangs that operates in at least 42 states and has more than 10,000 members in the United States, according to the FBI.
On Long Island, the gang is believed to have at least several hundred members, mostly men ages 15 to 28, officials said.
With numerous branches, or "cliques," it is the largest street gang on the Island, according to the FBI, which has a special task force dedicated to combating MS-13.
More than 250 of the gang's members, including dozens of clique leaders, have been convicted on federal felony charges in Nassau, Suffolk, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island since 2003, records show.
Since 2010, federal prosecutors have charged MS-13 members with carrying out more than 25 murders on Long Island and parts of New York City -- a number that is expected to grow, officials said.
The gang was founded in the 1990s by young Salvadoran refugees who fled El Salvador's civil war for Los Angeles. Many were ex-soldiers who'd fought in that conflict, and brought their guerrilla-style military training to Los Angeles' gang wars.
In New York, the gang makes money off drug sales, extortion, human trafficking, firearms trafficking and other crimes, police said. Members are known for their use of machetes during attacks, earning MS-13 a reputation as one of the most brutal gangs.
'Need new recruits'
New arrivals to the United States have always been attractive to MS-13, its former members said.
"The cops and the feds are always pulling guys off the street, so the gangs look to these kids as people who can keep the clique strong and at a good size," said Eduardo Morales, 43, a former MS-13 member and anti-gang activist in Los Angeles. "They need new recruits if they want to compete with the bigger gangs and keep their territory."
Latino gangs offer new immigrants from Central America "protection, ways to earn money and friendship," among other perks, Morales said.
"But the trade-off is, they will get killed or go to prison," Morales said. "It's just as true in LA as it is in Long Island."
As more youthful immigrants arrive in Nassau and Suffolk, community support will be key to keeping them from falling under the influence of area gangs, said Gwen O'Shea, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.
"We can combat this issue by providing them with access to education and the social safety net," O'Shea said. "If we don't provide that, they might feel gangs are their only option."