Angel M. Melendez, special agent in charge of Homeland Security...

Angel M. Melendez, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations, in Central Islip on June 13, 2017. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A new law enforcement task force is using “broad” authority to go after MS-13 and other gangs, arresting and deporting their leaders and recruits and gathering intelligence to prevent their continued growth on and around Long Island.

Special Agent in Charge Angel M. Melendez, of the federal Homeland Security Investigations agency leading the effort, said the goal is to put away as many gang members as can be identified and to diminish the brutal violence the gang is known for.

“We are working on gathering intelligence and going out and targeting these individuals to remove them from the streets,” Melendez said, using “criminal arrest authority” to prosecute and “civil immigration” powers to remove those in the country illegally.

The operation follows a public commitment from President Donald Trump’s administration to obliterate the gang.

Melendez said the task force will conduct “long-term investigations” that will lead to federal charges against some gang members and identifying “the illicit pathways” they are using to migrate into the United States and move to Long Island.

The message to gang members: You are not welcome here.

“Operation Matador” should have a significant impact in Suffolk and Nassau counties, which Melendez said have “the biggest presence of MS-13” in the metropolitan area.

The gang’s penchant for violence has been particularly felt in the Brentwood and Central Islip communities in Suffolk, with 11 killings connected to MS-13 in the last year. In the latest attack, still under investigation, the bodies of four young men were found in a Central Islip park in April. Authorities filed federal charges against 13 MS-13 members, including two juveniles, after the killings of two teenage girls felled in an assault with bats and a machete on Sept. 13 in Brentwood.

Trump stressed his administration’s focus during a Cabinet meeting Monday. Referencing MS-13, the president said: “They’re being thrown out in record numbers and rapidly. And they’re being depleted. They’ll all be gone pretty soon.”

The local anti-gang offensive is concerning to civil rights advocates, who say it has the feel of blanket enforcement.

“It is kind of . . . criminalizing the many law abiding, lawful immigrants that do live on Long Island, that just want to live peacefully, safely, have their concerns addressed by the police instead of having to be interrogated about status, about ties or information,” said Jose Perez, deputy general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, an advocacy group with an office in Central Islip.

Task force officials said the operation is “intelligence-driven” and only targets individuals with gang links.

Besides deploying the personnel and resources of Homeland Security Investigations — a part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the effort unites a slew of agencies including ICE’s enforcement and removal operations, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Suffolk, Nassau and New York City police departments.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Tim Sini said this task force is part of a larger anti-gang effort and “another tool in the toolbox . . . to remove dangerous gang members from our community.”

His department, Sini said, “is being extremely aggressive in collecting intelligence” that is shared with federal partners, but follows a strict protocol to only pursue active gang members.

“The combined efforts of the new federal task force should show significant positive effects,” said Nassau County Police Deputy Commissioner Patrick Ryder. “Our goal is to keep families and our youth safe from these gangs.”

The regional team has made 45 arrests in the last 30 days, said an ICE spokeswoman: 33 suspects lived in Suffolk and eight lived in Nassau; three were arrested in Queens and one in Brooklyn.

ICE said 39 were affiliated with MS-13, but the arrests included members of Sureños, 18th Street, Latin Kings, Los Niños Malos and Patria gangs. Twenty had prior arrests and convictions, including a Salvadoran national arrested in Suffolk with a history of felony assault; a Honduran national arrested in Suffolk for menacing with a weapon, disorderly conduct, fighting and violent behavior; and a Salvadoran national arrested in Nassau for attempted assault, disorderly conduct and harassment.

About a quarter of those taken into custody, Melendez said, were young immigrants who had entered the country as unaccompanied minors, among thousands coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala over the last several years — many saying they left their homelands to escape gang violence.

While many of those children came to reunite with family, Melendez said some were seeking to connect with gang cliques “to augment the membership in the U.S.”

This development, he said, calls for stricter vetting of children being resettled under anti-trafficking protections here, as well as other ways to “disrupt the smuggling efforts.”

He said the agencies are willing to use broad administrative powers to revoke protections shielding some youths from deportation if they are found to have connections to gangs. That would include taking away “deferred status” granted to young immigrants known as Dreamers; revoking special immigrant juvenile status given to unaccompanied minors; and canceling temporary work permits granted to asylum-seekers.

By the same token, Melendez said the effort relies on cooperation from witnesses and victims as well as informants in immigrant communities; he said the task force will assist those aiding investigations in seeking visas and protections.

“The more cooperation that we get from the community, it would be better,” Melendez said. “I know there’s some concerns regarding immigration enforcement. What I will say is that ICE and the department [have] mechanisms in place in which we could assist victims and witnesses of crime” who “step forward” with critical information.

The new effort complements operations targeting the gang nationally, involving both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. MS-13 has grown to have cliques in at least 46 states, with an estimated 10,000 members nationally and up to 70,000 members worldwide, Melendez said.With The Associated Press

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