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Ex-gang member cross-examined in trial of accused getaway driver in deli killing

Kevin Cifuentes, testifying for the fourth day in the trial, told Jose Suarez's defense attorney Raymond L. Colon that "MS-13 doesn't force anybody whatsoever" to commit violence. 

A former MS-13 gang member testifying Monday against his former associate on trial for allegations that the associate was the getaway driver in a 2017 Central Islip deli killing said the defendant could have simply told gang leadership he didn't want to participate in the slaying because he had no "responsibility" to the gang.

"If he didn't want to do it, he could have refused, and that is it," said Kevin Cifuentes, the government's star cooperating witness, while under cross-examination Monday. Cifuentes earlier in the trial had said that when the gang's leadership in El Salvador learned of the intended slaying, they insisted it be done without specifying who should do it.

Cifuentes, 25, a former Brentwood resident currently incarcerated for his role in the deli killing, has been testifying at the federal murder trial of Jose Suarez, 24, formerly of Central Islip. Cifuentes has pleaded guilty to the crime and under his cooperation agreement could face anywhere from 10 years to life imprisonment, according to testimony.

Suarez, alleged by prosecutors to be an associate of MS-13, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he drove the getaway car from the El Campesino deli, where suspected rival gang member Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla was fatally shot by MS-13 gang member Mario Aguilar-Lopez on Jan. 30, 2017. Suarez is also charged with conspiracy in an alleged gang-related beating at a taco restaurant in 2016 in a dispute over a woman and for selling marijuana and cocaine for MS-13. 

Aguilar-Lopez has pleaded guilty to being the shooter in Alvarado-Bonilla’s murder and is awaiting sentencing. 

Cifuentes, testifying for the fourth day in the trial, told Suarez's defense attorney Raymond L. Colon that "MS-13 doesn't force anybody whatsoever" to commit violence. 

Colon, attempting to show his client was not an associate of the gang and would have been killed by MS-13 if he had not agreed to drive the vehicle, asked Cifuentes what made Suarez exempt from MS-13 violence.

“Because he had no responsibility to MS-13,” said Cifuentes.

Colon asked: “Because he wasn’t an associate?”

Cifuentes replied that Suarez was, in fact, an MS-13 associate and explained that there’s a difference between being an associate and having a rank in the gang.

Colon then presented Cifuentes with a list of gang members and their ranks seized through a government search warrant from the home of alleged MS-13 gang leaders Alexi Saenz, known as “Blasty,” and his brother Jairo Saenz, known as “Funny.”

The Saenz brothers, accused by prosecutors of being the leaders of Brentwood’s MS-13 Sailors clique, have been indicted in the September 2016 killings of Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, as well as several other MS-13 related killings.

“Do you see the name Jose Suarez on that list?” Colon asked.

“No,” said Cifuentes.

“Chómpiras?” asked Colon, referring to his client’s alleged gang nickname, a nod to a comedian.

“No,” said Cifuentes.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Tierney, on redirect, pointed out through his questions to Cifuentes that many of the gang’s associates were not on the list.

Tierney also asked Cifuentes about the many crimes that Suarez had seen or heard about the MS-13 gang members committing, yet continued to hang out with them. 

On the day of the killing, Cifuentes said he tried three times to stop Suarez from participating.

“But he made his choices, the same way I made mine,” said Cifuentes.

Colon, speaking after the proceeding ended Monday, said: “Mere presence is not evidence of criminality or intent. And the witness knows everyone is under the threat of serious bodily injury or death if he resisted. It’s difficult to walk away when you’ve seen too much or know too much.”

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