Before the rise of MS-13, it was the Latin Kings and a bunch of smaller rivals that fought over turf on Long Island. Those outlaw crews were mostly concerned with defending drug territory, said anti-gang experts with local law enforcement agencies.
By contrast, when the gang also known as Mara Salvatrucha started gaining notoriety in immigrant communities here about 20 years ago, its members seemed little more than a menacing group of young men going after each other and others with gratuitous violence -- with broken bottles and knives at a Bay Shore mall, punching a toddler in the face during a street robbery in Patchogue, intimidating a teen who backed away from joining the gang in Port Washington.
The first of those arrested and thrown into Suffolk County jail “just started getting beat up” by the other gangs, including the Latin Kings, Bloods and Crips that were better represented among inmates, “and we ended up moving them to keep them safe,” recalled Raymond Olivencia, a retired gang investigator with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office. They were even placed in protective custody, “sometimes against their will,” because they were outnumbered and seemed easy prey as recent immigrants who were often slight, didn’t speak English and were on their own, he said.
Soon, though, they showed how tough they were. Some of them resorted to murder.
One life claimed early on was Jesús Valentín, a young gang “wannabe” who went missing in 2003, after wearing a gold-yellow shirt, the color associated with the Latin Kings, said John Oliva, a former detective with the Suffolk County Police Department who would later largely focus on pursuing MS-13.
Valentín was lured into the woods in Central Islip to smoke marijuana, Oliva said. Once there, three gang members beat him with 2-by-4s and a fire extinguisher. His throat was slashed and he was stabbed in the stomach.
His remains would be found stuck in a drainpipe.
“It was surreal. I couldn’t believe it,” Oliva said.
One gang member would be convicted and sentenced to life in prison in that case.
The gang’s tight-knit cliques or clicas of 10 to 15 members cropped up in the mid-2000s, formed around geographic areas, including locations in Brentwood, Central Islip, Copiague, Freeport and Hempstead. Although the cliques are semi-autonomous, each is required to send money back to El Salvador every month.
“The first clique that we got wind of here in Suffolk County was that BLS clique,” Oliva said. “It was guys that [had] recently come into the country illegally and they had set camp up in CI [Central Islip]. And then we started hearing there was another clique, which was the Sailors. Sailors from El Salvador that came to Brentwood. And now we had them.”
The gang would eventually spread throughout the United States, but it’s been largely concentrated in regions where Central American immigrants have settled, following that migration.
In Suffolk, members of MS-13 have been remanded regularly to the county jail since the early to mid-2000s, Olivencia said. “We had an influx. ... They were always picked on by the gangs in the jail, because they’re very small in stature,” he said. “In the streets they make up for their size by carrying a machete, or a gun.”
Leaders and members of the Sailors, Leeward and Brentwood cliques would later be charged in connection with a rash of killings and assaults that tore through Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore in recent years. They include the fatal September 2016 attack with baseball bats and a machete on Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, and the April 2017 ambush with machetes, knives and wooden clubs that claimed the lives of four young men.
Through its early years on Long Island, MS-13 established itself gradually, holding meetings at soccer fields, warehouses and abandoned buildings at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. Members are often teens, attracted to the MS-13 mystique.
Social media posts from the Brentwood, Freeport and Normandie cliques include tributes to fallen soldiers, gruesome images of bloodied and mutilated bodies, young men wielding machetes and firearms, and Spanish-language raps that boast and threaten enemies. “Tell them not to bother the Mara Salvatrucha,” said one such rap, “because we’ll kill them.”
Schools have been used as recruiting grounds. Some teenagers join willingly. Others are intimidated.
“What happens is that the gangs want you to join here; they ask you like three times,” said Lady Morán, the sister of Miguel García Morán, 15, shortly after his body was found in a wooded area of Brentwood in September 2016 in a murder that law enforcement sources have linked to the gang’s spate of violence that year. “If you reject them three times, they are going to hit you or bully you."
The combination of youth and outsider status breeds a recklessness not always seen in other criminal gangs. After priests at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood encouraged parishioners to cooperate with police, they were threatened, leading police to station squad cars there during Mass, said Kevin Farley, a Brentwood resident who works with the gang intelligence unit at Rikers Island.
The gang has sought to make itself respected and feared through its viciousness.
“Long Island is about the most rudimentary facsimile of the gang that you can find anywhere,” said Steven S. Dudley, an American University researcher who has investigated MS-13 under a U.S. Department of Justice grant. “No control from the top. Doing incredibly public and really stupid violent acts that lead to their virtual destruction.”
MS-13 has been linked to more than two dozen murders on Long Island since 2010. More than 50 gang members have been arrested and prosecuted in connection to the gang’s crimes in both counties since 2010. Dozens more have been identified as gang members by law enforcement authorities and have been detained for deportation under a federal Homeland Security Investigations initiative dubbed Operation Matador.
Of the 15 homicides in Nassau last year, six were connected to MS-13, Nassau police said.
The resiliency of the gang has proven a significant challenge to local law enforcement in both Long Island counties.
Confronted by the growing threat of MS-13 and other gangs, both county police departments teamed with federal agencies in 2003 in a joint task force.
Both Oliva and Olivencia were members through different time spans. Amid much contention, Suffolk police withdrew Oliva and other key detectives in 2012, asserting that fighting gangs on the precinct level would be more effective. Other law enforcement sources have said that those changes — made under former Police Commissioner James Burke, who is now in federal prison for beating a handcuffed suspect and conspiring to cover it up — crippled federal homicide investigations.
Later, former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, an ally of Burke now under indictment on charges related to the cover-up, charged Oliva with leaking information to a Newsday reporter about a string of commercial burglaries. In September 2014, Oliva pleaded guilty to official misconduct, received a conditional discharge and retired.
Oliva, who received numerous awards and commendations while on the force, called the charges politically motivated. He said in an interview that he pleaded guilty because his lawyer told him fighting the charges at trial would cost him $250,000 and that there was no guarantee he would win.
Efforts to crack down on the gang ramped up after the 2016 murders of the two teenage girls, as local, state and federal government agencies committed more resources to the fight.
The gang has become a focus of the federal government as well.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised “to demolish” MS-13 during a 2017 visit to Central Islip.
President Donald Trump has called gang members “animals” while committing to support the law enforcement push and invoking the gang’s brutality to bolster a restrictive immigration agenda.
But there has been activity on the other side, as well.
While the cliques operate with some autonomy, they do receive specific orders from leaders in other states along the East Coast and in El Salvador, according to law enforcement sources.
Viewing the East Coast cliques as particularly undisciplined, the gang leadership in El Salvador has put them on a much tighter leash, gang experts say. Federal officials, including Sessions during his 2017 visit to Long Island, have said the gang has sent leaders to the United States to gain control of local MS-13 cliques and reconstitute them.
Gang experts, local and national, expect the gang to return in force at some point, as it always has in towns and cities where it’s taken hold.
“As they pull the power vacuum out and most of the leadership goes, the kids that are left want to make a statement for themselves, they want to matter, so they’re going to put the work in,” said Farley, the Rikers Island gang investigator. “You’ll never eradicate MS."
Oliva concluded: “I don’t see them going anywhere else. They’re here.”
Community advocates have been trying to make the case for sustained prevention initiatives beyond law enforcement, an idea that county, police and state officials have supported.
More than once, Dafny Irizarry, a teacher of English as a New Language in Central Islip, said she and other teachers have seen seats go empty in their classrooms and later found out that their students had been lost to the gangs.
She recently visited El Salvador with other Long Island educators seeking to understand the challenge presented by MS-13 and came away with a daunting sense of how difficult it is.
“Unless we take the time and say ‘They are our children, too,’ and ‘We have to do better,’ I don’t think it’s going to get better,” Irizarry said.