An MS-13 associate was found guilty Thursday of playing a role in the killing of a man thought to be a rival gang member, after testimony from other MS-13 members who cooperated with the government.
The jury in Central Islip found Jose Suarez, 24, of Central Islip, guilty of all nine counts against him, including racketeering, assaulting two men who supposedly disrespected the gang, wounding a woman at the site of the rival’s killing, and illegal use of a firearm.
The anonymous seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated for about seven hours over two days in what was a retrial of Suarez. His first trial earlier this year ended in a mistrial after a juror told the judge he believed he was being followed by the defendant’s family. The defense said later that investigators had concluded there was no attempted intimidation.
The evidence against Suarez presented by Eastern District federal prosecutors Raymond Tierney and Michael Keilty included the testimony of three members or associates of MS-13, who made deals with the government in an effort to gain leniency for their own crimes. Suarez’s defense attorney, Raymond Colon of Manhattan, had told the jury that his client was not affiliated with the gang and was being prosecuted because he “foolishly hung out” with MS-13 members, and was being set up by gang members who turned informant and lied to get lesser sentences.
The trial provided a detailed picture of the operations of the gang, as well as its “simple” code, focused on maintaining control of its territory by killing or injuring rival gang members or anyone who disrespects the gang. Among the details: LI members took orders from leadership jailed in El Salvador, and members support gang cliques by petty crime, such as selling small bags of marijuana.
Suarez was charged in connection with the fatal shooting of Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, 29, of Brentwood, who was killed in January of 2017 at the El Campesino deli in Central Islip because he was wearing the No. 18 jersey of NFL star Peyton Manning, favored by the rival 18th Street gang, prosecutors said.
Suarez was accused of being the person who drove the actual shooter of Alvarado-Bonilla to and from the deli.
The two assault victims — a man and his uncle — were attacked outside Brentwood’s Super Taco restaurant because the uncle had said that the only real members of MS-13 were in El Salvador.
The case was investigated by the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task force which includes Suffolk and Nassau County detectives.
Suarez is one of the few remaining members of MS-13 arrested in the recent crackdown on the gang who is not facing a potential death penalty. He faces mandatory life in prison, U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said.
Neither Suarez’s attorney nor his mother, who often attended her son’s trial, could immediately be reached for comment.
About a dozen members of the gang, also arrested in the recent crackdown, are waiting to learn if federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty upon conviction.
Among them are brothers Alexi Saenz, 23, and Jairo Saenz, 21, of Brentwood, who are accused of taking part in six killings, as leaders of MS-13’s Sailor’s clique in Brentwood. Those slayings include that of Alvarado-Bonilla, three other people also suspected of belonging to rival gangs, and two high school girls, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15.
The brutal murder of the two girls, and the hacking to death of four young men in a Central Islip park, touched off a national furor with President Donald Trump vowing to crush the gang.
Officials and gang experts have said that the presence of the MS-13 has waxed and waned since the early 2000s with the FBI task force and Eastern District prosecutors arresting and convicting hundreds of the gang’s members,.
The latest law enforcement push against the gang by federal and local authorities has resulted in a sharp decline recently in MS-13 -related violence, law enforcement officials say. But in the past the MS-13 has resurfaced, fueled by economic downturns and increased violence in Central America, driving would be gang members to the United States, gang experts and sources have said.
The recent round of MS-13 related violence, though, has been especially vicious — such as the killing of the two girls. This has been attributed to younger would be gang associates among the numerous unaccompanied minors entering the United States, Newsday has reported. These youths have been even more unrestrained than many older members in attempting to prove their violent bona fides to join MS-13 here, experts and sources have said.