PHILADELPHIA — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday designated the MS-13 street gang — responsible for at least 22 killings on Long Island since last year — a new target for federal task forces that have historically focused on drug cartels and organized crime.
Sessions, addressing an annual law enforcement conference, said the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces will use the federal racketeering statute, or RICO, as well as tax and gun laws to take aim at MS-13, which one expert said could top the list of the most dangerous criminal enterprises in the world.
“Now they will go after MS-13 with a renewed vigor and a sharpened focus,” Sessions said, speaking before hundreds of police officers at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He added: “Just like we took Al Capone off the streets with our tax laws, we will use whatever laws we have to get MS-13 off of our streets.”
Sessions had vowed “to demolish” the gang when he spoke at the federal courthouse in Central Islip in late April, two weeks after police found the mutilated bodies of four young men who authorities said were victims of MS-13 in a nearby park.
On Monday he did not specifically mention the violence that has terrorized communities on Long Island. But he spoke of the gang’s brutal nature, saying its motto is “kill, rape and control.”
The leaders of both the Nassau and Suffolk police departments, which have investigated at least five and 17 MS-13 killings respectively since 2016, applauded the federal efforts.
“The Nassau Police Department’s priority at this time is to eradicate these gang members from our community, to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods and protect all of our residents,” Nassau Acting Police Commissoner Patrick Ryder said in a statement.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said in an interview that while collaboration with federal law enforcement partners has been key in suppressing the gang, his direct request to Sessions for funding for more prosecutors has not yet been granted.
Additionally, Sini said immigration reform that creates greater monitoring and accountability in the controversial unaccompanied minor program, which has seen 5,000 young people come to Suffolk since 2014, is desperately needed. Police have said some of the victims of MS-13 violence in Suffolk came to the United States through the program while others are vulnerable to gang recruitment.
“We have picked up intelligence that MS-13 is less willing, or eager to send people to Suffolk County,” Sini said. “In the past, when an MS-13 gang member commits a crime, sometimes they’ll sort of be shipped out and put in another jurisdiction where there’s an MS-13 presence...we’re not seeing that as much.”
Ronal Serpas, a criminology professor at Loyola University New Orleans and former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville, the site of a sprawling federal MS-13 takedown about a decade ago that resulted in the prosecution of more than 10 suspected gang members, said localities need federal help.
“I do not think it’s an overestimation to say [MS-13 is]...one of the most dangerous criminal enterprises, if not the most dangerous criminal enterprise in the world,” said Serpas. “And they do so in very sophisticated structures and you need equally sophisticated investigative practices to interrupt them.”
The task forces include officials from a wide swath of the federal government, including federal prosecutors, the U.S. Postal Service inspectors, the Coast Guard, the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service. It also consists of law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations.
Nassau County police last week discovered the remains of 16-year-old Angel Soler, of Roosevelt, in a vast wooded area after Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, received a tip from a “person of interest” that human remains may be at the site. Soler was reported missing to Nassau police in July. Soler’s mother told Newsday she believes her son died at the hands of a gang and sources have said police were searching for a victim of gang violence in the area where the Freeport High School student’s remains were discovered.
Ryder has declined to say whether police have determined or suspect MS-13 or another gang is responsible for Soler’s death, citing the ongoing investigation. Police have also declined to comment on the possibility that two other missing young men might be victims of gang violence, as their relatives have contended.
The Department of Justice has trained its eye on Long Island’s MS-13 problem, which gained national attention after the September 2016 killings of Kayla Cuevas, 16 and Nisa Mickens, 15, in Brentwood.
President Donald Trump in July spoke about the Island’s MS-13 violence at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood in July, saying that its streets had turned to “blood-stained killing fields” that are “under siege.”