It bears repeating, over and over again, that one teenager’s run-ins with a violent gang began in the halls of her school.
“Kayla was bullied for two years,” her mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, told a congressional subcommittee hearing on gang violence on Long Island at the federal courthouse in Central Islip last week.
“They get them in school,” she said, referring to recruiting and intimidation efforts by violent MS-13 gang members. In March, six gang members were charged in the beating deaths of Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her friend, Nisa Mickens, 15. The gang had spotted the pair walking together on a street in Brentwood.
Of all the testimony given before U.S. representatives Peter King (R-Seaford) and Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Rodriguez’s easily was the most urgent, compelling and, frankly, frightening.
The early part of the hearing had been devoted to law enforcement officials, including representatives from Nassau and Suffolk police departments, the Suffolk jail, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Together, the officials pieced together a view of MS-13, and with the bureaucratic precision of agencies ferreting out as much information as possible in a combined effort to solve, and stop, a recent spate of murders and violent attacks by gang members.
What is MS-13 on Long Island?
Most members, officials said, are male, ages 16 to 29, with ties to El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. In Suffolk, the largest concentration of MS-13 members lives in Brentwood; the second largest in Central Islip.
Suffolk has 400 gang members, arranged in nine cells called cliques; Nassau has 345 members who have been active in the past five years (along with 367 inactive ones).
Many gang members hold wage-paying jobs — one factor that differentiates MS-13 from other gangs — although MS-13 nonetheless generates income through extortion, prostitution, membership dues and illicit trafficking. The gang’s weapon of choice — which seemed to come as a surprise to Rice — is the machete, which often is used to mutilate and dismember victims during attacks that sometimes are recorded.
Officials agreed that MS-13 considers undocumented minors — or as Angel Melendez of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations more bluntly put it, “undocumented alien children” — who, as part of a program, were settled with relatives or guardians in Brentwood and Central Islip, as prime candidates for membership.
“What . . . concerns us is the age of the average MS-13 member and associate,” William Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, testified. “Typically much younger than those connected to other street gangs, MS-13 members and associates often lack direction, taking cues from the gang instead of relying on a productive family structure.” More than one official also noted that MS-13 recruits in schools, often using intimidation and threats.
All of which brings us back to Rodriquez, and to Kayla, who attended the same high school as Nisa in Brentwood.
It is not Rodriguez’s job — nor that of Nisa’s dad, Robert, who also testified — to police a community; or to catch and prosecute gang members. It’s not her job to gather intelligence or coordinate between federal and local policing agencies.
Rodriguez, nonetheless, had one of the most important jobs of all — raising a daughter, which made her just as knowledgeable as the experts in the room.
“They get them in school,” she testified, looking up from the witness table to where King and Rice sat in the federal courtroom-turned-hearing room. “They target them, they bully them.”
Her soft voice grew strong as she talked about Kayla, and her days in school — and about how school officials and Suffolk police at the local precinct ignored the family’s quest for action. “She had to wear a tough skin every day to go to school,” Rodriguez said. “She had to be a tough girl to survive.”
In the months before she was killed, Kayla was involved in a series of disputes with gang members; a week before, she and several friends had an altercation with members at her Brentwood high school, according to federal prosecutors.
Since Kayla’s death, her mother’s had to be tough, too.
“I never thought I would be doing this,” she said in an interview after the hearing. “But I’m here, and I’m at every school board meeting and I am not going to go away.”