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Government witness, ex-MS-13 gang member, recounts why he became a 'snitch'

An MS-13 gang associate, who is cooperating with the government, testified Wednesday that almost immediately after the killing of a rival gang member, he confessed to Suffolk authorities his role in the murder and identified the other gang members involved.

Among those the cooperator, Kevin Cifuentes, 25, testified that he named were two leaders of the Brentwood clique of the street gang, who now face a possible death penalty in connection with a murder inside a Central Islip deli and five other killings, including that of two Brentwood High School girls.

Cifuentes testified Wednesday in the federal trial of another accused MS-13 associate, Jose Suarez, who was charged with driving Cifuentes and the shooter to and from the deli. He said he was stationed there by the gang’s leaders to help coordinate the January 2017 killing of Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla.

Alvarado-Bonilla, 29, of  Brentwood, had been spotted inside the El Campesino deli wearing the No. 18 jersey of NFL star Peyton Manning, favored by members of MS-13's bitter rival, the 18th Street gang, Cifuentes said.

The gang’s leadership had decided that Alvarado-Bonilla especially deserved death not only for wearing the No. 18 jersey, but for doing so openly in the Central Islip-Brentwood area, which MS-13 considered its sole turf, Cifuentes said. 

Suarez has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney, Raymond Colon of Manhattan, maintains his client is being prosecuted because he is friends with MS-13 members.

Cifuentes, who has been testifying during the week at Suarez’s trial, said that when Suffolk police arrived at the murder scene, they immediately recognized him as an MS-13 associate and assumed he had something to do with the killing.

“I made the most difficult decision of my life — to become a snitch" in return for a reduced sentence and possible placement in the federal witness protection program, Cifuentes has testified under questioning by Eastern District federal prosecutor Raymond Tierney. Tierney is prosecuting the case along with Michael Keilty.   

In addition to implicating himself and Suarez in the killing, Cifuentes identified the leaders of MS-13’s Brentwood Sailor’s clique as ordering the Alvarado-Bonilla killing, and assigning the roles of those involved in the murder.

The two leaders, Alexi Saenz, 23, and his brother, Jairo Saenz, 21, both of Brentwood, have also been accused in the killings of  the Brentwood High School girls, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, as well as in three other gang-related killings.

The brothers are among about a dozen MS-13 members who are awaiting a Justice Department decision on whether to seek the death penalty if they are convicted. 

Cifuentes is facing a maximum sentence of life in prison for his role in the Alvarado-Bonilla killing, as Suarez would, if he is convicted.

Law enforcement officials have noted a sharp drop in killings by MS-13 since the more recent arrests and prosecutions of MS-13 members, including that of the alleged Alvarado-Bonilla killers.

But officials and gang experts have noted that since the early 2000s there has been a recurring pattern on Long Island — first, a pattern of MS-13 violence, followed by a decline as a result of prosecutions and arrests, then a recurrence of gang activity a few years later, fueled often by people, including youngsters used to the area’s savage gang culture, fleeing violence and economic downturns in Central America.

Along with providing information on MS-13 killings, Cifuentes has testified to reams of intelligence on gang membership and other operations.

On Wednesday, for example, during his testimony, he identified people in more than two dozen pictures as MS-13 members.

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