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Two MS-13 members testify at trial, providing picture of gang fueled by violence, criminality

Two Long Island members of the MS-13 street gang, cooperating with federal officials, have painted a picture of a group fueled by a bizarre combination of extreme violence and otherwise relatively petty criminality in testimony at federal court in Central Islip.

The two gang members have been testifying this week at the trial of an alleged gang associate, Jose Suarez, 21, of Central Islip, who is accused of taking part both in a brutal assault on an uncle and his nephew for supposedly showing disrespect to the gang, and also for involvement in the killing of a man suspected of being a member of MS-13’s bitter rival, the 18th Street gang. Their testimony provides insight into the gang’s alleged core homicidal philosophy, as well as MS-13’s more mundane low-level criminality.  

Suarez has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Raymond Colon, says his client is being wrongly prosecuted only because he hung out with MS-13 members.

Both of the MS-13 members testifying for the government have pleaded guilty to unrelated killings for MS-13 and have testified that they have turned on the gang in the hopes of getting lighter sentences.

One of the cooperating witnesses, German Cruz, 21, of Brentwood, has pleaded guilty to the assault on the uncle and nephew, as well as the June 2016 killing of fellow gang member Jose Pena. Pena was killed because he was believed to be an informant and in a relationship with a gay person, both violations of gang rules, Cruz testified under questioning by Eastern District prosecutor Michael Keilty.

But in addition to his role in violent crimes, Cruz also spoke of how he stole money and a cellphone out of the hands of drunken people leaving bars, as well as selling small quantities of cocaine and crack for $10 to $20, to support his MS-13 clique.

The second MS-13 witness in the Suarez case, Walter Lopez, pleaded guilty  to two killings for MS-13: the 2012 killing in Hempstead of Jose Vallejo, a drug dealer who Lopez said showed disrespect by pulling a gun on an MS-13 member, and the 2012 killing in Brentwood of Douglas Martinez, who was suspected of being an informant.

Lopez 30, of Brentwood, said the goal of MS-13 was “to have control over all the streets in the world … by killing chavalas, through [this] imposition of respect,” under questioning by federal prosecutor Raymond Tierney. Chavalas is the MS-13 word for members of rival gangs.

To show the lengths to which MS-13 goes to instill violence in United States cliques, Lopez said that several years ago, despite the gang violence that was occurring on Long Island, MS-13’s leadership in El Salvador sent in a hardened member from that country, nicknamed “Mafioso,” to lead and toughen the gang’s Islip clique.

Mafioso’s role, in the MS-13’s view of the world, was to teach the Islip members “how to do things properly … to get away with murder, basically … to teach … gang members how to grow up,” Lopez said.

Mafioso was to turn the Islip members “into a clique that everybody would respect … in El Salvador you’re basically around violence and murder 24/7. … Here you don’t see that type of violence. That’s their recreation over there,” Lopez said. 

One of MS-13’s common body tattoos was three black dots, which gang members referred to as “My Crazy Life,” Lopez said. The dots, he said, stood for the only three ways out of the gang: death, the hospital or jail.

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