Kerin Pineda and Javier Castillo were just children when they left their home years ago, running from MS-13 and the gang violence in Central America, family members said.
Each traveled thousands of miles before eventually landing on Long Island, where they hoped to go to school, embark on careers and embrace America’s opportunities. Pineda, 20, had dreams of becoming a police officer. Castillo, 16, hoped to become an auto mechanic, loved ones said.
Their American dreams were shattered, apparently by the very street gang responsible for the death and destruction that pushed Pineda, Castillo and thousands of other young people from Central America north in search of better lives, family members said.
Pineda and Castillo, law-enforcement sources say, are the latest victims of MS-13 violence on Long Island — the latest casualties in a bloody spree that has left 25 dead since January 2016 on Long Island.
The young men had been missing for more than a year when the FBI Long Island Gang Task Force announced last month that their remains had been discovered in secluded parts of Nassau County.
The remains of Pineda, of Freeport, were found in the thick woods near the Freeport/Merrick reservoir on Oct. 27. The remains of Castillo, of Central Islip, were found Oct. 23 in Cow Meadow Park and Preserve in Freeport. No arrests have been made in their deaths.
The news smashed the hopes of family members who had searched Long Island streets and parks for sons and brothers for months, clinging to fading hopes that the young men were still alive.
“We’re destroyed,” Santos Ernesto Castillo, Castillo’s father, said recently before his son’s wake at the Michael J. Grant Funeral Home in Brentwood. “It takes so much effort to bring them here and you want them to get a better life. We came here to work so that they could get a better life.”
MS-13 has become a national political issue — President Donald Trump has cited it as a justification for his tough immigration policies. But for the families of Pineda and Castillo, the gang has brought pain that is deeply personal and tragic.
“I thought the gangs didn’t exist here,” said Pineda’s grieving mother, Lilian Oliva. “I never thought that this would happen.”
The remains of a third young man believed to be a victim of MS-13 violence, Angel Soler of Roosevelt, were also found in a wooded area in October, near the Baldwin-Roosevelt border, Nassau police said. Suyapa Soler, the 16-year-old boy’s mother, told Newsday last month that she, too, had brought her son from Honduras to protect him from the gangs that were ravaging San Pedro Sula, his hometown.
Oliva, a mother of five, said she decided the time had come to flee in 2008, after armed gunmen stormed into her family’s home in Copan Ruinas in western Honduras and stuck a gun in her chest. The gunmen shot up the home, Oliva said, while she and her children huddled, terrified, under a bed. Oliva immigrated to the United States not long after that, and she said she paid a smuggler $1,200 to bring Pineda north two years ago. He was intercepted by immigration officials after he had crossed into the United States and ultimately returned to Oliva in Freeport.
Pineda, a student at Freeport High School, rarely went out, Oliva said, and when he did it was usually to play soccer or go to the gym.
Oliva said her son dreamed of becoming a police officer. Pineda was loving, always quick with a hug or a kiss, she said.
Castillo’s father said his son’s journey from Central America to Central Islip began in their hometown of Zacatecoluca, El Salvador. Santos Ernesto Castillo, a police officer in El Salvador, was already in the United States and working in construction when he sent for Javier and his younger brother in July 2012. The boys were being targeted in El Salvador by MS-13 members who wanted Javier to join the gang, Castillo said.
The boys crossed the border and were detained by immigration officials, Castillo said. They were reunited with their mother in Fort Worth, Texas, before they eventually settled with their father in Central Islip.
Javier, a student at Central Islip High School, also mostly kept to himself, his father and other relatives said. He liked to play video games and soccer with his cousins. He had recently gotten an after-school job in a Central Islip car repair shop on Suffolk Avenue and told his father he’d like to become a mechanic.
Oliva said she will never forget the last day she saw her son alive: It was a Saturday morning in May 2016. They shared a cup of coffee while they folded laundry at a nearby Laundromat. They brought the laundry home before Oliva left for her job cleaning houses.
Pineda went to a friend’s home about 7 that evening but only stayed for an hour. He had a date with a young woman he had just met, his mother said.
Pineda did not return home that night, and his mother was frantic the next morning.
“I kept calling and calling and he wouldn’t pick up, ” Oliva said.
She went through her missing son’s Facebook messages and discovered a lengthy conversation with the woman about the exact location in the wooded area where they were to meet.
Oliva returned to those woods several times a week for months with a friend. They would shout Pineda’s name in a desperate search for her missing son. But she never found him.
“I would cry and I would yell ‘Where are you,’ ” Oliva said. “I didn’t have any help from the police.”
Oliva said she believes investigators did not take her missing son’s case seriously, that they chalked it up to him absconding with a girlfriend, she said.
“The Nassau County Police Department provides exceptional investigation techniques and numerous resources to all missing person cases with the priority of returning the missing individual home safe,” acting Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said in a statement, adding that in some cases the agency taps specialty squads or state and federal law-enforcement agencies for assistance.
Castillo also desperately searched for his son after he went missing. He said he last saw Javier on Columbus Day 2016, sitting on his couch at home watching TV and enjoying the day off from school. The boy did his laundry and was caught on the home’s surveillance camera leaving the residence. It was the last his family would ever see of him.
Castillo spoke with police officers 48 hours later. He said he spoke to Suffolk police three times but wasn’t satisfied.
“I think the police thought he was just a rebel and he didn’t want to come home,” Castillo said.
Assistant Commissioner Justin Meyers said he could not discuss Javier’s case specifically. “Every missing-persons case in Suffolk County is taken very seriously,” Meyers said.
Castillo and Javier’s brother scoured the streets on their own hoping they could find him. “We went out every night for about four months searching for him on every street,” Castillo said of the search through Central Islip and Brentwood. “We never found him.”
The father of three hung onto his fleeting hope that his son was still alive but became more fearful as news broke that remains were found in area parks over the last few weeks.
Investigators soon came to Castillo’s workplace, asking for a DNA sample.
“I figured nothing good could come of this. He had been gone for too long,” Castillo said. The boy was positively identified days later, confirming Castillo’s greatest fear.
Oliva also got the devastating news that it was her son who was buried in the ground at the Freeport/Merrick border. She said she knew it was Pineda by his gold chain and a school ID found with the remains.
Oliva now wants to give her son a proper burial, but investigators said she needs to wait until they can figure out the cause of death.
Meanwhile, about 40 loved ones gathered inside the St. John of God Roman Catholic Church on Carleton Avenue in Central Islip a few days ago for Javier Castillo’s funeral Mass. They wiped away tears and sang “Ave Maria” as the coffin was rolled down the center aisle of the church.
Santos Ernesto Castillo’s eyes welled with tears as he sprinkled holy water onto his son’s coffin.
Loved ones had scribbled messages on his coffin such as “Rest in Peace” and “I will miss you,” while someone else drew a heart.
Castillo and five others carried out Javier’s coffin from the church and into the hearse. His son was buried at the Queen of All Saints cemetery on Wheeler Road.
“I’m destroyed,” Castillo said. “Any father or mother wants to see their son grow up and thrive. They don’t want to see their son like this.”