The violent transnational street gang MS-13 has become so ingrained on Long Island that chapters in El Salvador identify themselves by their Nassau and Suffolk counterparts, calling their cliques “Freeport,” “Brentwood” and “Huntington,” among others, Suffolk police officials said.
The gang’s hierarchy, on a mission to step up the brutality, has sent members from El Salvador to run cliques — or operating units — on Long Island, Suffolk County Police Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante said. And because members have traveled back and forth, maintaining contact and giving directives, the name of the various locations on Long Island stuck.
“If that’s not influence and control, then what is?” Gigante said. “Brentwood to them is a town on Long Island. They know that. But to them it’s just a brothership with the clique here.”
The size of the cliques on Long Island has increased as well and can range anywhere from 10 to 25 members, officials said.
Gigante said the latest intelligence on MS-13 resulted from a January trip to El Salvador by Long Island law enforcement authorities. Officers learned about cliques on Long Island that are named after the hamlets and are taking orders from cliques abroad that go by the same name, located in a more southern part of the country. The leadership in El Salvador calls the shots, granting permission to coordinate gang activities, Gigante said.
“They’re talking about the Freeport clique and they are thousands of miles away,” Gigante said of the gang chapters in El Salvador.
The information comes as authorities in both counties execute their battle plans to take on the gang, which include a combination of arrests and indictment, information gathering and social services outreach.
Nassau County spearheaded in January a major gang takedown, which netted the highest-ranking MS-13 member on the East Coast along with other leaders and a treasure trove of intelligence, authorities said.
Police on Long Island are on high alert and stepping up enforcement after officers in Hempstead found out about a pair of threats from MS-13 members aimed at officers in retaliation for a recent gang crackdown, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said on April 20. One threat involved at least one gang member who had a gun and mask in his car and parked a short distance from an officer, Ryder said. Another threat, made by a gang member to an informant, urged anyone from MS-13 to “take the streets back” and “take out a cop like we do in El Salvador,” according to an internal memo. Police have not made arrests in connection with the threats.
As a result of the gang initiatives, authorities in Nassau and Suffolk counties said they now have a clearer profile of MS-13, whose members have been responsible for more than two dozen fatalities over the past two years on Long Island, officials said.
And while the January trip to El Salvador gave Suffolk police officials insight into the inner workings of the gang abroad, an indictment of 17 members and associates in Nassau County also enabled investigators to learn details on MS-13’s operation, which has led to multiple arrests around the country and abroad, officials said. In El Salvador, 36 MS-13 members were arrested earlier this month for conspiracy and murder because of intelligence stemming from the indictment, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said.
“This was a very impactful investigation,” Singas said of the indictment. “[We’re] preventing murders from actually happening and we’re going to continue doing this and continuing the pressure on this gang to make sure that they do not kill and hurt our residents.”
East Coast leader
The 21-count indictment started as a drug-trafficking investigation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Singas said in January. DEA investigators and authorities in Nassau County soon became clued in on the gang’s involvement, including its East Coast leader, identified as Miguel Angel Corea Diaz, the alleged head of the Sailors clique, officials said.
The investigation also resulted in the seizure of $1 million in heroin, stopped potential MS-13 murders and solved others, such as the death of Angel Soler, whose remains were found in a wooded area near the Roosevelt-Baldwin border in July, investigators said.
Among the findings:
- Killings, one of the gang’s hallmarks, are premeditated and meticulously planned. Once a killing is officially sanctioned by gang leaders in New York and El Salvador, lower-tier members are ordered to scope out a secluded spot in a wooded area to make sure there are no surveillance cameras, bystanders or regular patrols by police.
- The method of death is also determined by high-ranking members and can vary from their most common method: by machete.
- Once the killings happen, lower-ranking members are told how deep to dig the hole to bury the bodies.
- Members have to pay anywhere from $10 to $50 a week in dues, officials said. Many MS-13 members have day jobs and can afford dues. That money is used to fund gang activities, such as purchasing tools, like machetes, their instruments of death, or even for attorneys when they get caught by police, officials said. Investigators recovered a composition notebook full of accounting details, such as who paid their dues, who owes dues and who borrowed money from the gang, officials said.
Direct line to leaders
The eastern leader of the gang, Corea Diaz, also known as “Reaper,” had a direct line to gang leaders in El Salvador and would discuss killings, drugs sales and day-to-day gang business, the officials said.
Corea Diaz, who was extradited to Long Island from Maryland and was arraigned on April 19, was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and drug trafficking, officials said. He allegedly dictated how drug operations ran, how and which killings would happen and would coordinate MS-13 activity in Nassau, Suffolk, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and even as far as Texas, officials said.
When local police would close in on MS-13 members who allegedly committed killings or other crimes, Corea Diaz moved them around like chess pieces, police and prosecutors said. Gang members would go to other cliques in other states to evade police and sometimes members from an out-of-state clique would be brought in to commit murders in an effort to throw off investigators, officials said. Corea Diaz pleaded not guilty at his arraignment and is being held without bail.
The victims of MS-13 violence usually fall into a few categories. Some are seen as rival gang members or people who have been considered to have disrespected the gang, Singas said at her criminal justice conference earlier this month. They don’t have to actually be gang members either. The perception alone is enough to trigger the violence, Singas said. They also attack members of their own gang who break the rules. Anyone who overstates their role in the gang or doesn’t do as they’re directed is subject to punishments that can range from a severe beating or a nonfatal machete slice to murder, Singas said. Lastly, they go after witnesses, especially witnesses to murder, Singas said.
And anyone who is even thought to have cooperated with law enforcement is marked for death.
“If you’re perceived to be cooperating with law enforcement, that’s punishable by death,” Singas said. “If you say someone is cooperating with law enforcement and you’re wrong, you just made it up, you just wanted to get rid of another rival, then you die.”
Swiped 13 times
Some victims who are attacked are swiped 13 times with a machete, the number used to symbolize the gang. Suffolk police found surveillance footage in July of 2016 of a gang assault where three MS-13 members surrounded a victim in Central Islip and took turns chopping at him with their chosen instrument of violence. They each passed around the machete until they had all taken 13 swipes at their victim, who was so badly hurt that doctors said he was better off dead, Gigante said.
“That sharing of the machete also shares the responsibility and the less likelihood that you’re going to rat each other out,” said Suffolk Police Capt. John Sumwalt, who went on the trip to El Salvador along with representatives from other regional agencies such as the New York State Police, Nassau County police and the NYPD to meet with the national police force.
The organization of MS-13 has recently come into focus. Aspiring gang members are called “Moros,” the lowest ranking members in the group. They hang out with the gang and sometimes do menial tasks, Singas said. “Paros,” is the next level up, also hanging out with gang members and are taken more seriously as potential MS-13 members.
“Chequeos” is the next group and potential members in this tier have already put in some work for the gang, including violence, drug sales or both, Singas said. They have shown the gang they are serious about joining.
The next step up is officially becoming a member of MS-13, or a “homeboy.” To achieve this, members must be credited with at least four killings or they can become a member and owe the gang the slayings and respond when the higher-ups call it in, Singas said.
From there, some gang members grow to hold leadership positions, at times increasing their profile with more violence, Singas said. MS-13 also makes use of members who appear to be law-abiding citizens with no apparent ties to the gang. This way, the gang has access to lines of credit or insurance for a vehicle, according to a law enforcement official.
Suffolk police officials are also keeping a close eye on high-ranking gang members from El Salvador who may come to Long Island to fill the gaps left by other members who have been arrested in recent weeks in order to keep the operation going.
It can cost the gang as much as $8,000 to smuggle someone across the border, and though it is hard to stop them from entering illegally, Gigante said they are keeping a close eye on new members who arrive. Suffolk police are also staying in contact with their new partners in El Salvador, who can give them the back story to an MS-13 member who sneaked in and has no identification, Gigante said.
“We have good intel,” Gigante said. “We know who’s coming up and who’s in place.”
MS-13 POWER STRUCTURE
MOROSLowest-ranking, aspiring members. Sometimes do menial tasks.
PAROSHang with gang members, taken more seriously as potential members.
CHEQUEOSHave already put in work, including violence, drug sales or both. Have shown they are serious about joining.
HOMEBOYSOfficial members. At least 4 killings (or can owe gang the slayings). Some go on to leadership.
SOURCE: Nassau County DA Madeline Singas