A Homeland Security Investigations agent works in a control center in Central...

A Homeland Security Investigations agent works in a control center in Central Islip last year during an operation targeting suspected immigrant gang members. Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

The crackdown on MS-13 has resulted in a sharp drop in gang-related killings on Long Island — roughly two dozen homicides in 2016-2017 compared with one committed last year — but law enforcement officials caution that the violent group is fighting to maintain its grip here.

Investigators attribute the decrease to hundreds of arrests after a series of high-profile slayings that spotlighted the gang, and aggressive prosecutions that put some of the leaders behind bars. Despite the progress, law enforcement officials warned that MS-13 is working hard to re-establish itself and avoid police detection.

“There is more work to be done and we must not become complacent,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “MS-13 is resilient and can quickly replace incarcerated and deported members, especially given the unprecedented, overwhelming and illegal flow of young Central American men over our southern border.”

Nassau recorded three MS-13 homicides in 2018 but only one was committed in 2018. Suffolk recorded one, but it likely took place in 2015. The four bodies were all discovered last year. Federal authorities said they believe MS-13 members committed as many as 28 homicides on Long Island between 2016 and 2017.

Investigators have used informants to glean intelligence and keep tabs on the gang. Recruitment, however, continues at both the junior high and high school levels, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said, with girls who are relatives or girlfriends of gang members being used increasingly to identify possible recruits in schools.

Members have also stopped getting tattoos as MS-13 leadership recognized the symbols were an easy way for police to identify them, officials said.

Hart, who headed the FBI’s Long Island office when MS-13 violence on Long Island erupted in September 2016 after the killings of two teenage girls in Brentwood — Nisa Mickens, 15 and Kayla Cuevas, 16 — said the key to containing the gang and working to shut it down is “constant, constant relentless enforcement activity” by the police department and other law enforcement agencies.

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“You’ll have a massive takedown and then they’ll be quiet for a while, and I think the trap that some departments fall into is that they take their eye off the ball and then they reconstitute again,” Hart said.

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas cited her office’s prosecution of Miguel Angel Corea Diaz, an MS-13 leader known as “Reaper” — which began as a federal drug investigation — with leveling a “very significant” blow to the gang.

“They obviously still have presence on Long Island, but after that Reaper takedown and major indictments against 17 of their high-level operatives, they haven’t been able to build back up in a way that poses as significant a threat,” Singas said.

In that case, authorities used wiretaps to infiltrate the gang. “We actually have their own words and their own voices that we can play for juries,” Singas said.

The FBI on Long Island has also added a new violent crimes squad to free up agents to work exclusively on MS-13, dedicating between a dozen and 15 agents to the effort about six months ago, New York’s FBI director William F. Sweeney Jr. said.

After the implementation of the gang’s “New York Program” — a mission to shore up MS-13's presence on Long Island that resulted in more than two dozen killings in 2016 and 2017 — much of the gang and its leadership ended up in jail. In the last decade, according to authorities, more than 50 killings on Long Island have been attributed to MS-13.

The killings drew the attention of President Donald Trump, who traveled to Long Island twice to declare war on the gang. They also brought federal funding, which officials said has been integral to school-and community-based programming to prevent teens from joining the gang.

Authorities point to March 2018 — when federal agents arrested 24 immigrants across Long Island, New York City and the Hudson Valley as part of a sustained offensive known as Operation Matador that was launched in 2017 to deport those linked to violent street gangs over the past several years — as having a big impact on MS-13.

“Operation Matador sends a clear message to violent street gangs that there are consequences for their actions,” ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan said in a statement at the time. “Since this operation began last year, we have seen a decrease in the amount of violent crime directly related to MS-13 and other transnational gangs.”

But the gang has sought to rebuild.

In December, Nassau authorities said a 13-year-old girl lured a young man to his death in the back of a Lawrence community center.  It was part of an effort to recruit new members and re-establish a new Normandy clique or chapter in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway areas.

In Suffolk, six alleged MS-13 gang members were charged in March with plotting to kill two men, part of an effort to rebuild the gang, authorities said. 

Suffolk Det. William Ward, of the Criminal Intelligence Bureau, said the department’s intense focus has thinned the ranks of the several MS-13 cliques operating on the Island, such as the Sailors clique in Brentwood and Central Islip.

“We’ve worked really hard on the Sailors clique, we worked on the Leeward clique to where we really brought the numbers down,” said Ward. “To say they’re a clique at full strength? Absolutely not.”

Hart said there are some 375 known MS-13 gang members in the county. Previously, Nassau officials said they estimated about 500 gang members were operating in the county.

Ward said the gang members know cops are keeping close tabs. “Everyone’s on notice that we’re constantly watching,” Ward said.

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini was in the thick of the MS-13 fight during 2016-2017 when a Newsday database show MS-13 homicides spiked. Sini was a new police commissioner when teenage Hispanic boys began disappearing and were later found dead, according to police, at the hands of the gang. He vowed to eradicate MS-13 on the Island.

“Law enforcement should be proud of the results that we’ve seen,” said Sini, who credited his strong relationship with federal partners, such as Homeland Security Investigations, with helping Long Island authorities to keep the pressure on the gang. “This isn’t mission accomplished," Sini said. "We still need to make some progress here and we will.”

Still, just seven months after Mickens and Cuevas were slain, the gang allegedly committed another brazen killing: slaughtering four teenage boys in a Central Islip park.

MS-13 hasn’t committed a killing in Suffolk since then, police say. The slaying recorded in Suffolk last year was likely committed in 2015, police have said. That victim’s remains were found by the FBI in Babylon Village, but police have said the victim disappeared in 2015, when investigators believe he was killed.

The subsequent arrests of dozens of suspected gang members alleged to have committed many of the slayings put a serious dent in the leadership and membership of the gang, authorities say.

Kesi Foster, an organizer at the nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization Make the Road New York who works with youth, said an emphasis on employing “credible messengers” to speak to teens vulnerable to gang recruitment is needed in the communities of Central Islip and Brentwood.

“It’s much easier for a young person to listen to someone from their community who might have done some things when they were younger, than like a state sheriff,” Foster said.

Rob Mickens, whose daughter Nisa Mickens’ 2016 death resulted in a massive police response, said he sees the difference in the community: People aren’t afraid to go outside as they were.

“They are really cracking down,” said Mickens, referring to law enforcement authorities who he said promised they would arrest his daughter’s killers. “One thing I can say, they stuck to their word.”

Mickens, 41, who now lives in Wyandanch, said he receives regular updates from Eastern District federal prosecutor John Durham, who is trying the case against the suspected gang members alleged to have killed his daughter.

“I look at it as her tragedy, it woke up the world,” said Mickens. “Because the world needed to be waked up because this organization was really taking over things and nobody was really speaking up.”

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