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Conflicting figures on Long Island's MS-13 membership raise questions

Homeland Security Investigations ICE agents work in a

Homeland Security Investigations ICE agents work in a control center during an operation targeting immigrant gangs in Central Islip in March 2018.     Photo Credit: Getty Images/John Moore

In the two years since Operation Matador began, law enforcement officials have given conflicting figures for the number of MS-13 members on Long Island.

This has raised questions about the size of the gang locally and whether its magnitude has been exaggerated at a time when President Donald Trump and his allies have been criticized for distorting the threat the gang poses for political ends.

Even before he was inaugurated, Trump was pointing to MS-13’s killings on Long Island to justify the need for stricter immigration enforcement. “They’re killing and raping everyone out there,” Trump told a Time magazine reporter in December 2016, a year that saw the gang claim eight lives in Nassau and Suffolk counties. “They’re illegal. And they are finished.”

The gang's viciousness is not in dispute, but its size and reach have been a matter of debate. 

Jose Miguel Cruz, a Florida International University professor who has studied MS-13, said that there are larger gangs responsible for more violence, “but MS-13 is the perfect culprit if you want to sell your anti-immigrant program.”

At a forum in Bethpage a year ago, acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan put the number of MS-13 gang members on Long Island at roughly 2,000, but other law enforcement leaders offer significantly lower estimates.

Becoming a full-fledged member of the gang typically involves an initiation period that culminates in a final test — an act of violence. Formal acceptance into the ranks is then marked by a beating at the hands of already-made members.

Steven Dudley, a co-director of InSight Crime, a research initiative funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice, has studied and written about MS-13 on Long Island. Dudley said cliques may have dozens of hangers-on with a core few ready to commit violence in hope of becoming made members.

Others on the periphery, sometimes known as banderas, are errand-runners or lookouts. In the outer ring, Dudley said, are girlfriends, family members and others with little to no involvement in committing crime. While some recruits are eager, Dudley said the gang also uses threats to coerce reluctant young people into service.

Matador targeted not only bona fide members, but also those that authorities labeled gang affiliates or associates.

“Law enforcement will play up the numbers or downplay the numbers based on their need,” said Dudley, who spoke broadly, not in direct reference to any agencies he’s dealt with on Long Island. “The risk can be played up for political advantage."

Nassau and Suffolk police have strongly defended their numbers.

Cruz said that nationwide law enforcement tends to inflate figures by identifying all who have interacted with MS-13 as gang members, especially if they are young. Complicating the picture, he said, are teens who may pretend to some gang standing to appear tough.

“But they are in no way gang members,” Cruz said. “The gang won’t recognize them as members of the clique.”

Dudley said the gang’s cliques on Long Island typically have between 10 and 15 full-fledged or "beaten-in" members.

News reports and interviews with law enforcement sources indicate there are roughly 11 MS-13 cliques on Long Island. Assuming all are active — unlikely given the recent law enforcement crackdown — and boast a cohort of 15, the actual number of beaten-in MS-13 members on Long Island would be 165.

The Suffolk County Police Department, in written responses to questions, said Dudley’s figures were consistent with “old norms for MS-13.”

“Today, cliques can have 20 or more members, particularly in communities with a large MS-13 population. Communities with smaller MS-13 populations tend to have smaller cliques. MS-13 has even ordered the merger of some smaller and/or less active cliques into broader cliques.”

Assuming all the estimated 11 Long Island cliques have more than 20 members, say 25, that puts the MS-13 population at 275, or 14 percent of the 2,000 figure the DOJ official gave.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in May 2017, the month Matador launched, then Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said there are “approximately 400 MS-13 gang members” in Suffolk “organized in approximately nine cells called cliques.” By Sini’s math, each clique would have had to have about 45 members, far higher than most estimates.

In an interview, now Suffolk District Attorney Sini said his 400 figure was an “approximate number” taken from the police department’s gang database, which includes admitted MS-13 members or those who have met “quite a stringent” confirmation protocol. He waved off figures provided by Dudley and the police department, asking a reporter where he had gotten them, and said that “we have cliques in Suffolk County with over 100 gang members.” Asked to identify such a clique, Sini declined, saying he did not want to release “investigative information.”

In its written responses to Newsday, the police department said it “often confirms MS-13 gang members who do not live in Suffolk County. It is not uncommon for Nassau or Queens-based MS-13, as well as out-of-state MS-13, to come in contact with our officers. In addition, inmates who identify as MS-13 and are in the county’s correctional facility in Riverhead are included in our numbers.”

The department said there are “approximately 400 confirmed MS-13 gang members who have had contact with police during the past several years. In addition, we have another approximately 200 documented MS-13 associates.”

Asked whether using a database that includes MS-13 members from outside Suffolk to produce a tally of gang members described as being “in the county,” as Sini did before the U.S. Senate, could be viewed as misleading, Sini replied: “I don’t think anything I have ever said has ever been misleading.”

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the department uses a rating scale of 1 to 5 to determine membership. Criteria include having a gang tattoo, committing a gang crime and associating with gang members.

“You get arrested and someone says he’s a gang member and you have a gang tattoo, that might give you a point,” Ryder said. “You’re self-admitted, boom, you go right to the top.”

Sini has declined to discuss in detail what criteria officers use to identify gang members — though clearly they don’t involve confirming that a person has been beaten in. A 2016 arrest work sheet that Suffolk police provided to the U.S. Department of Justice lists 10 indicators, including wearing gang colors, flashing gang signs or hanging out with known gang members, and asks officers to “select two or more items.”

“Some of it’s obvious. Some of it’s not,” Sini told The Washington Post in 2018 of identifying gang members. “And this is when activists get nervous. If a kid is wearing white adidas, does that mean he’s a gang member? No, of course not. But the bottom line is that I can look at a pair of sneakers on a kid right now and tell you whether it’s an indicator of gang membership. That’s a fact.”

With Nicole Fuller, Sandra Peddie and Víctor Manuel Ramos

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