Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. visited a prison in El Salvador to understand the connection between MS-13 and the leadership there. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports. Credit: Courtesy: Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office

Long Island's MS-13 cliques are no longer dependent for direction from the gang's power base in El Salvador after authorities in the Central American country locked up thousands of gang members, disrupting communications between the groups, law-enforcement officials told Newsday in interviews.

The decline in communication from El Salvador has allowed the Long Island chapters to become more independent and “Americanized” in recent years, eschewing the violence that made the gang internationally infamous to focus on activities such as drug trafficking and extortion, officials said.

The crackdown in El Salvador resulted in the arrest of more than 60,000 gang members and associates. Long Island cliques, once required to seek approval from El Salvador for murders and other criminal activities, have become less dependent on direction from Salvadoran leaders as a result of President Nayib Bukele’s 20-month-old all-out war on gangs.

“The longer that they stay in this country, it seems the more Americanized they get, and if there is money to be made in an illicit way, I think they are going to take advantage of that,” said Suffolk County Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, commander of the department’s intelligence unit.

Catalina and Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. recently traveled to El Salvador to meet with law enforcement officials and tour that nation’s new supermax prison, the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT), where thousands of MS-13 leaders are incarcerated.

“There is a gang looming inside of this jail called ‘Brentwood,’ ” Toulon said, highlighting the long-standing bonds between Long Island and El Salvador. “Not from Brentwood, but called Brentwood.”

The crackdown on Long Island and El Salvador’s war on gangs, which has been criticized by human-rights advocates and the U.S. Department of State, have severely damaged MS-13’s leadership and membership, authorities said. That has pushed gang leaders on Long Island and elsewhere to focus on rebuilding their ranks — and their bank accounts, according to Christopher Lau, assistant special agent-in-charge of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations' New York Division.

“The more members they have, the flusher their leaders will be,” Lau said. “The leaders are money-driven. The lower guys pay dues and transfer money [from illicit activities] to leaders in other states.”

Gang bosses in El Salvador, officials said, continue to exert some influence on Long Island, even though thousands are incarcerated at CECOT, where personal visits, phone calls, mail and other contact with the outside world are banned. 

Some law enforcement officials fear the disruption in the command structure, along with younger leaders’ increased autonomy, could lead to a leadership vacuum and possible violence over who gets to lead MS-13 on Long Island. Most MS-13 members on Long Island are in their teens and 20s.

MS-13 leaders in El Salvador in the past rejected murder requests from Long Island cliques, according to Suffolk Chief of Detectives John Rowan, who previously served as the department’s liaison with federal and state agencies investigating MS-13 crimes.

“Now we have a group of younger people who I feel don’t have the leadership, or the guidance, and they are kind of loosely acting on their own,” said Rowan, former commander of the Third Precinct, which includes Brentwood and other gang hot spots. “That is something that concerns me.”

There are about 550 MS-13 members and associates in Suffolk County, Rowan said, with cliques operating in Brentwood, Central Islip and Huntington Station.

Det. Sgt. John Schmitt, the commander of the Nassau police gang unit, declined to say how many members and associates MS-13 has in the county, but did say that there are eight or nine cliques based in Hempstead, Uniondale, Roosevelt, Westbury and Woodmere.

MS-13 continues to engage in violence, a vital tool for drug trafficking and extortion, Schmitt said. He and other officials said the gang usually extorts money from businesses and individuals in Long Island’s Latino communities, preying on their neighbors and peers. Wire transfers deliver money from Long Island to leaders in Central America.

“They try to rule by fear,” Schmitt said.

MS-13 has never been Long Island’s largest gang, but it became the most notorious because of the dozens of high-profile killings directed or sanctioned by leaders in El Salvador between 2013 and 2017, according to officials. The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America to Long Island during that period, the officials said, provided the gang with fertile recruiting ground.

Many of those slayings resulted from up-close-and-personal violence committed with machetes, baseball bats, clubs and axes. The victims included four young men killed in a Central Islip park in 2017, prosecutors said, who were slain because the attackers believed they belonged to a rival gang and had disrespected MS-13 on social media.

MS-13 members killed Brentwood High School students Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, in September 2016, authorities said. Cuevas had clashed with the gang’s members and associates in the months leading to her death. Some of them have pleaded guilty in the killings and some are still awaiting trial.

The killings focused national attention on Long Island’s gang violence and on Cuevas’ mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, who became an anti-gang activist after her daughter’s slaying.

Rodriguez was the guest of then-President Donald Trump during his 2018 State of the Union, and met with Trump again later that year, when he visited Brentwood to discuss gang violence with local leaders. Rodriguez was killed in 2018, two years to the day her daughter’s battered body was found, during a confrontation with driver Ann Marie Drago, who authorities said ran her over with a Nissan Rogue. 

A Suffolk judge declared a mistrial in Drago's second trial on the top charge of criminally negligent homicide after the jury failed to reach a verdict in late October. Drago's first trial ended in a guilty verdict, though her conviction was later overturned. Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney said his office is ready to retry Drago on the charge again.

Some of those murders were part of the gang initiation process, Rowan and Schmitt said. Others were committed in order to increase the killer’s standing.

“It’s hard to say exactly what drove it,” Rowan said. “But when you have an organization and their motto is ‘Rape, torture, kill,’ it goes without saying they sanction that type of criminal activity.”

Toulon, who traveled with Catalina to El Salvador in September to discuss security strategies and open lines of communication with defense and law enforcement officials, said the country has been transformed since he visited in 2018. MS-13 and other gangs virtually ruled the country with violence and intimidation, he said. Eighty-seven law enforcement officers were killed just in the first four months of that year, right before his visit.

“The stranglehold MS-13 had over private businesses and the people of El Salvador was quite apparent,” Toulon said.

The nation felt much safer in September, Toulon said.

People he met while traveling through El Salvador praised Bukele’s assault on MS-13, Toulon said, and polls show it has broad support. Residents who fled El Salvador’s civil war and gang violence are returning, and tourism has increased. The crackdown has dramatically slashed what was once the world’s highest homicide rate, from 6,656 in 2015 to 495 last year, according to the Salvadoran National Police.

Bukele asked Salvadoran lawmakers in March 2022 to approve a “state of exception” that labels MS-13 members as terrorists and allows the government to make arrests without warrants. Some constitutional rights, including a detainee’s right to a lawyer, have been suspended, and more than 60,000 people have been arrested under the state of exception.

The U.S. Department of State said the state of exception has led to credible reports of unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and forced disappearances. Human Rights Watch said Bukele and his legislative allies “have systematically dismantled democratic checks and balances.”

“It is tough,” Toulon said, “but every system across the globe does things different. The government is doing what it thinks it needs to do to keep people safe."

The centerpiece of Bukele’s crackdown is CECOT, which opened in February. Toulon and Catalina said the facility was clean and the inmates looked well-fed. The cells house about 70 prisoners, who sleep on metal slabs without mattresses, blankets or pillows. There are two toilets and two wash areas — and no showers — for each cell.

The inmates are not allowed contact with the outside world or even access to outdoor recreation areas. Cell service is blocked, making phones inoperable even if they are smuggled into the 40,000-capacity prison.

Authorities on Long Island also are arresting and charging MS-13 gang members, targeting high-value suspects where they find them. The defendants include Elmer Canales-Rivera, one of 27 high-ranking MS-13 leaders federal prosecutors have said ordered murders, assaults, kidnappings and other crimes on Long Island and elsewhere. He was arrested on Nov. 9 in Houston by federal agents and transferred to the custody of federal prosecutors in Central Islip after the U.S. Department of Justice charged him with terrorism offenses.

The Eastern District of New York prosecuted hundreds of MS-13 members and associates who carried out at least 65 murders in Nassau, Suffolk, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island between 2009 and the present, the Justice Department said earlier this month.

The clampdowns on Long Island and El Salvador have disrupted the relationship between Central American leaders and cliques in Suffolk and Nassau, Catalina said, but gangs have the ability to change and evolve and authorities have to be ready.

“This was a significant blow to the leadership of MS-13, but rest assured, they will try to come back,” Catalina said. “Law enforcement in Suffolk County has to be super vigilant.”

Long Island's MS-13 cliques are no longer dependent for direction from the gang's power base in El Salvador after authorities in the Central American country locked up thousands of gang members, disrupting communications between the groups, law-enforcement officials told Newsday in interviews.

The decline in communication from El Salvador has allowed the Long Island chapters to become more independent and “Americanized” in recent years, eschewing the violence that made the gang internationally infamous to focus on activities such as drug trafficking and extortion, officials said.

The crackdown in El Salvador resulted in the arrest of more than 60,000 gang members and associates. Long Island cliques, once required to seek approval from El Salvador for murders and other criminal activities, have become less dependent on direction from Salvadoran leaders as a result of President Nayib Bukele’s 20-month-old all-out war on gangs.

“The longer that they stay in this country, it seems the more Americanized they get, and if there is money to be made in an illicit way, I think they are going to take advantage of that,” said Suffolk County Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, commander of the department’s intelligence unit.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island's MS-13 cliques are no longer dependent for direction from the gang's power base in El Salvador after authorities in the Central American country locked up thousands of gang members.
  • The resulting decline in communication from El Salvador has allowed the Long Island chapters to become more independent and “Americanized” and to focus on activities such as drug trafficking and extortion.
  • Long Island cliques, once required to seek approval from El Salvador for murders and other criminal activities, have become less dependent on direction from Salvadoran leaders.

Catalina and Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. recently traveled to El Salvador to meet with law enforcement officials and tour that nation’s new supermax prison, the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT), where thousands of MS-13 leaders are incarcerated.

“There is a gang looming inside of this jail called ‘Brentwood,’ ” Toulon said, highlighting the long-standing bonds between Long Island and El Salvador. “Not from Brentwood, but called Brentwood.”

Damaged leadership

The crackdown on Long Island and El Salvador’s war on gangs, which has been criticized by human-rights advocates and the U.S. Department of State, have severely damaged MS-13’s leadership and membership, authorities said. That has pushed gang leaders on Long Island and elsewhere to focus on rebuilding their ranks — and their bank accounts, according to Christopher Lau, assistant special agent-in-charge of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations' New York Division.

“The more members they have, the flusher their leaders will be,” Lau said. “The leaders are money-driven. The lower guys pay dues and transfer money [from illicit activities] to leaders in other states.”

Gang bosses in El Salvador, officials said, continue to exert some influence on Long Island, even though thousands are incarcerated at CECOT, where personal visits, phone calls, mail and other contact with the outside world are banned. 

Some law enforcement officials fear the disruption in the command structure, along with younger leaders’ increased autonomy, could lead to a leadership vacuum and possible violence over who gets to lead MS-13 on Long Island. Most MS-13 members on Long Island are in their teens and 20s.

Suffolk Police Chief of Detectives John Rowan at police headquarters in...

Suffolk Police Chief of Detectives John Rowan at police headquarters in Yaphank this month. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

MS-13 leaders in El Salvador in the past rejected murder requests from Long Island cliques, according to Suffolk Chief of Detectives John Rowan, who previously served as the department’s liaison with federal and state agencies investigating MS-13 crimes.

“Now we have a group of younger people who I feel don’t have the leadership, or the guidance, and they are kind of loosely acting on their own,” said Rowan, former commander of the Third Precinct, which includes Brentwood and other gang hot spots. “That is something that concerns me.”

There are about 550 MS-13 members and associates in Suffolk County, Rowan said, with cliques operating in Brentwood, Central Islip and Huntington Station.

Det. Sgt. John Schmitt, the commander of the Nassau police gang unit, declined to say how many members and associates MS-13 has in the county, but did say that there are eight or nine cliques based in Hempstead, Uniondale, Roosevelt, Westbury and Woodmere.

MS-13 continues to engage in violence, a vital tool for drug trafficking and extortion, Schmitt said. He and other officials said the gang usually extorts money from businesses and individuals in Long Island’s Latino communities, preying on their neighbors and peers. Wire transfers deliver money from Long Island to leaders in Central America.

“They try to rule by fear,” Schmitt said.

A history of violence on Long Island

MS-13 has never been Long Island’s largest gang, but it became the most notorious because of the dozens of high-profile killings directed or sanctioned by leaders in El Salvador between 2013 and 2017, according to officials. The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America to Long Island during that period, the officials said, provided the gang with fertile recruiting ground.

Many of those slayings resulted from up-close-and-personal violence committed with machetes, baseball bats, clubs and axes. The victims included four young men killed in a Central Islip park in 2017, prosecutors said, who were slain because the attackers believed they belonged to a rival gang and had disrespected MS-13 on social media.

MS-13 members killed Brentwood High School students Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, in September 2016, authorities said. Cuevas had clashed with the gang’s members and associates in the months leading to her death. Some of them have pleaded guilty in the killings and some are still awaiting trial.

The killings focused national attention on Long Island’s gang violence and on Cuevas’ mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, who became an anti-gang activist after her daughter’s slaying.

Rodriguez was the guest of then-President Donald Trump during his 2018 State of the Union, and met with Trump again later that year, when he visited Brentwood to discuss gang violence with local leaders. Rodriguez was killed in 2018, two years to the day her daughter’s battered body was found, during a confrontation with driver Ann Marie Drago, who authorities said ran her over with a Nissan Rogue. 

A Suffolk judge declared a mistrial in Drago's second trial on the top charge of criminally negligent homicide after the jury failed to reach a verdict in late October. Drago's first trial ended in a guilty verdict, though her conviction was later overturned. Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney said his office is ready to retry Drago on the charge again.

Some of those murders were part of the gang initiation process, Rowan and Schmitt said. Others were committed in order to increase the killer’s standing.

“It’s hard to say exactly what drove it,” Rowan said. “But when you have an organization and their motto is ‘Rape, torture, kill,’ it goes without saying they sanction that type of criminal activity.”

Talking strategies

Toulon, who traveled with Catalina to El Salvador in September to discuss security strategies and open lines of communication with defense and law enforcement officials, said the country has been transformed since he visited in 2018. MS-13 and other gangs virtually ruled the country with violence and intimidation, he said. Eighty-seven law enforcement officers were killed just in the first four months of that year, right before his visit.

“The stranglehold MS-13 had over private businesses and the people of El Salvador was quite apparent,” Toulon said.

The nation felt much safer in September, Toulon said.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. Credit: Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office

People he met while traveling through El Salvador praised Bukele’s assault on MS-13, Toulon said, and polls show it has broad support. Residents who fled El Salvador’s civil war and gang violence are returning, and tourism has increased. The crackdown has dramatically slashed what was once the world’s highest homicide rate, from 6,656 in 2015 to 495 last year, according to the Salvadoran National Police.

Bukele asked Salvadoran lawmakers in March 2022 to approve a “state of exception” that labels MS-13 members as terrorists and allows the government to make arrests without warrants. Some constitutional rights, including a detainee’s right to a lawyer, have been suspended, and more than 60,000 people have been arrested under the state of exception.

The U.S. Department of State said the state of exception has led to credible reports of unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and forced disappearances. Human Rights Watch said Bukele and his legislative allies “have systematically dismantled democratic checks and balances.”

“It is tough,” Toulon said, “but every system across the globe does things different. The government is doing what it thinks it needs to do to keep people safe."

The centerpiece of Bukele’s crackdown is CECOT, which opened in February. Toulon and Catalina said the facility was clean and the inmates looked well-fed. The cells house about 70 prisoners, who sleep on metal slabs without mattresses, blankets or pillows. There are two toilets and two wash areas — and no showers — for each cell.

The inmates are not allowed contact with the outside world or even access to outdoor recreation areas. Cell service is blocked, making phones inoperable even if they are smuggled into the 40,000-capacity prison.

MS-13 clampdowns on LI, U.S.

Authorities on Long Island also are arresting and charging MS-13 gang members, targeting high-value suspects where they find them. The defendants include Elmer Canales-Rivera, one of 27 high-ranking MS-13 leaders federal prosecutors have said ordered murders, assaults, kidnappings and other crimes on Long Island and elsewhere. He was arrested on Nov. 9 in Houston by federal agents and transferred to the custody of federal prosecutors in Central Islip after the U.S. Department of Justice charged him with terrorism offenses.

The Eastern District of New York prosecuted hundreds of MS-13 members and associates who carried out at least 65 murders in Nassau, Suffolk, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island between 2009 and the present, the Justice Department said earlier this month.

The clampdowns on Long Island and El Salvador have disrupted the relationship between Central American leaders and cliques in Suffolk and Nassau, Catalina said, but gangs have the ability to change and evolve and authorities have to be ready.

“This was a significant blow to the leadership of MS-13, but rest assured, they will try to come back,” Catalina said. “Law enforcement in Suffolk County has to be super vigilant.”

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