MS-13 gang and other graffiti is painted a fence on...

MS-13 gang and other graffiti is painted a fence on East Third Street in Bay Shore on March 11, 2010. Credit: James Carbone

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

Latino street gangs led by MS-13 have tried to lure Long Island's newest child immigrants into their ranks, police said, causing concern among local investigators as well as immigrant advocacy groups.

The violent, drug-dealing gangs have been vying for new members among the more than 3,000 children younger than 18 who resettled in Nassau and Suffolk counties between September 2013 and September 2014, authorities said.

Many of those kids were fleeing violence carried out by MS-13 and other gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

"They were targeted by the Latino gangs that were already established here," Det. Sgt. Mike Marino, head of the Nassau County Police Department's gang section, said of high-school-age immigrants on Long Island. "The gangs did try to recruit some of them."

The recruitment push has met with limited success so far, attracting only a small number of new members, police said.

Some gangs recruit kids by befriending them, then pitching the benefits of membership. Others apply social pressure, or use money, drugs and threats of violence to bring in new recruits.

Authorities remain troubled by the trend, especially with 14,773 unaccompanied minors having arrived here since Oct. 1, 2014.

"We've had a few kids tell us they're afraid because they were traumatized by gangs, particularly by MS-13 in El Salvador and Honduras, where it's a strong gang, and have then encountered them here in the United States," said Patrick Young, an immigration attorney who is program director at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood. "A lot of kids are kind of surprised that they came here and encountered the same gang, which is smaller than it is where they came from, but still frightening for them."

Thousands arrived

Localities and school systems throughout the nation are still struggling to absorb the roughly 53,500 children who arrived in the United States last fiscal year.

Those minors continue to move through a multistep immigration court process to decide whether they can stay or are to be deported.

During last year's immigration wave, Nassau police learned of MS-13 and other gangs' recruitment efforts, Marino said. They worked to counter their tactics by making arrests, strategizing with immigrant families and collaborating with educators.

"Fortunately, we were able to intervene at an early enough point where . . . we're down to a very minimal level of success with that recruitment," Marino said.

In Suffolk, residents of gang-plagued communities say MS-13 and other organizations such as the Latin Kings, Netas and Sureños aggressively pursued potential recruits in Riverhead, Central Islip, Huntington Station and other neighborhoods with established Central American communities.

"They take children [for recruits], they take lives, they'll take anything," Wilfredo Serrano, 56, a small-business owner in Central Islip, said of MS-13 in Nassau and Suffolk. He asked that his store not be identified for fear a local MS-13 clique would harm him or destroy his shop. "I came from . . . [El Salvador] to get away from them [MS-13], but the same crime is happening here."

He continued: "Now they've been going after the new arrivals . . . kids who are very vulnerable and have already been through the worst in life."

William Madigan, chief of detectives for the Suffolk County Police Department, said Latino gangs have long looked to new immigrant communities on Long Island to replenish their ranks.

"That's par for the course," Madigan said.

10,000-member gang

MS-13, formally known as La Mara Salvatrucha, is a loose confederation of gangs that operates in at least 42 states and has more than 10,000 members in the United States, according to the FBI.

On Long Island, the gang is believed to have at least several hundred members, mostly men ages 15 to 28, officials said.

With numerous branches, or "cliques," it is the largest street gang on the Island, according to the FBI, which has a special task force dedicated to combating MS-13.

More than 250 of the gang's members, including dozens of clique leaders, have been convicted on federal felony charges in Nassau, Suffolk, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island since 2003, records show.

Since 2010, federal prosecutors have charged MS-13 members with carrying out more than 25 murders on Long Island and parts of New York City -- a number that is expected to grow, officials said.

The gang was founded in the 1990s by young Salvadoran refugees who fled El Salvador's civil war for Los Angeles. Many were ex-soldiers who'd fought in that conflict, and brought their guerrilla-style military training to Los Angeles' gang wars.

In New York, the gang makes money off drug sales, extortion, human trafficking, firearms trafficking and other crimes, police said. Members are known for their use of machetes during attacks, earning MS-13 a reputation as one of the most brutal gangs.

'Need new recruits'

New arrivals to the United States have always been attractive to MS-13, its former members said.

"The cops and the feds are always pulling guys off the street, so the gangs look to these kids as people who can keep the clique strong and at a good size," said Eduardo Morales, 43, a former MS-13 member and anti-gang activist in Los Angeles. "They need new recruits if they want to compete with the bigger gangs and keep their territory."

Latino gangs offer new immigrants from Central America "protection, ways to earn money and friendship," among other perks, Morales said.

"But the trade-off is, they will get killed or go to prison," Morales said. "It's just as true in LA as it is in Long Island."

As more youthful immigrants arrive in Nassau and Suffolk, community support will be key to keeping them from falling under the influence of area gangs, said Gwen O'Shea, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

"We can combat this issue by providing them with access to education and the social safety net," O'Shea said. "If we don't provide that, they might feel gangs are their only option."

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016. 

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book. 

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.  

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote. 

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures. 

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Wilfredo Serrano. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.  

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:  

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review. 

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names. 

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.  

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes. 

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local. 

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.” 

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.” 

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes. 

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.  

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday. 

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories. 

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