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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: The gang next door

Lourdes Banegas, the mother of Michael Lopez Banegas,

Lourdes Banegas, the mother of Michael Lopez Banegas, who was killed in 2017, speaks outside federal court in Central Islip on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday

Josue Portillo was 14 years old when his grandmother in El Salvador decided she'd had enough.

She called Portillo's mother, who was living in Central Islip, because Portillo's behavior was spiraling out of control.

"Together, they decided that he would be smuggled into the United States," Portillo's defense attorney, Joseph Ryan, said during a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Central Islip last week.

Several minutes later, Portillo, 17, would be sentenced to 55 years in prison for his role in the April 2017 killing of four young men who were lured to a park in Central Islip. They were attacked by Portillo and other suspected MS-13 members, officials said, with knives and machetes.

Before U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco handed down Portillo's sentence, the mother of Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, one of Portillo's victims, rose to speak.

"I came to this country 20 years ago," said Lourdes Banegas. "I have two children who are citizens; I have another two who were born in Honduras."

Portillo sat, head bowed low, as Banegas, speaking in Spanish, told the judge, " … Two years ago, we were a happy family and he destroyed everything, everything … we are not the same, my children are not happy, my husband is not the same."

At one point during the hearing, Bianco — who handles Long Island MS-13-related cases — noted that "the court has seen approximately 50 murders committed by the gang over the past 10 years."

A list compiled by Newsday tallied at least 52 victims of MS-13 over a decade.

Of that number, at least 28 died within a single quadrangle, bordered roughly by the Sagtikos Parkway, the Long Island Expressway, Carleton Avenue and the Southern State Parkway.

Portillo, who was smuggled into the United States in an overcrowded van, ended up with his mother, her husband and their family in the hamlet of Central Islip, which lies in the quadrangle.

One of his victims, Banegas, lived within those borders, too, in Brentwood.

With every arrest, every guilty plea and conviction, in Nassau and in Suffolk, come details of individual MS-13-related cases.

But a superseding federal indictment — that is, an indictment updated for a sixth time — last year, and an exhibit entered into evidence in the trial of an MS-13 associate in April, show in stark terms damage inflicted in one geographic area, mostly by a single MS-13 clique, since 2009.

Portillo, who was 15 when the killings occurred, was charged as a juvenile. Both he and another juvenile, Freiry Martinez of Brentwood, pleaded guilty in the Central Islip park killings and voluntarily agreed to be treated as adults.

The bulk of defendants charged in the federal indictment — suspects in assaults, attempted murders and murders, including the 2016 slaying of Brentwood High School students Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas — lived in the same area as victims, too.

Several, thus far, have pleaded guilty.

But there are several other cases to go.

Timothy Sini, Suffolk's district attorney who also once served as the county's police commissioner, said gang members concentrated into any area presents challenges.

"Things have gotten better as a result of a concentration of resources," Sini said.  (Listen to more of Sini interview in audio clip.)  

In April, Jose Suarez, 24, of Central Islip, charged with playing a role in the slaying of man in a Central Islip deli, became the first suspect named in the federal indictment to go to trial.

One of the last exhibits entered into evidence before Bianco declared a mistrial (because of one juror's comments to other jurors) was a map that included the addresses of Suarez — along with six other suspected MS-13 members, including some who testified against him.

All lay within the quadrangle.

During opening statements at Suarez's retrial, one month later, his attorney, Raymond Colon, made reference to having gang members as neighbors.

He told jurors to carefully consider the veracity of MS-13 members who would testify against Suarez.

"They're bad guys," Colon said, adding that his client's "dumb" decision to hang out with MS-13 members didn't make him a member of the gang.

Colon said that cooperating witnesses, who were self-admitted gang members, had made deals with the federal government.

As a result of those deals, Colon said, they could end up in a witness protection program.

"These guys," Colon said, "could even become your neighbors."

The jury ultimately would deliberate about Suarez's fate for seven hours, over two days.

The verdict: Guilty.

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