Transnational street gang MS-13 encourages members to illegally enter the United States from Central America, and recruits new members from schools and communities around the country.
NEW YORK—At first, Evelyn Rodriguez thought her teenage daughter had forgotten to charge her phone—it kept going straight to voicemail. Or maybe she had just lost track of time. But Kayla Cuevas and her best friend Nisa Mickens never blew through their 9 p.m. curfew, especially without checking in.
“She would call me if she was going to be two minutes late,” said Rodriguez. Sept. 13 was a typical Tuesday in Brentwood, New York, and the girls had gone for a walk while it was still daylight.
Earlier in the evening, Cuevas, who had turned 16 two months prior, and Mickens had been planning Mickens’s birthday party. Mickens was turning 16 the next day.
Rodriguez got home from work after 11 p.m. She drove past an accident site about a block away from her home. Yellow police tape cordoned the area off, and she remembers thinking, “Wow, I hope the person is OK.”
At home, Mickens’s parents were there waiting, but there was still no sign of the girls.
“My heart starts pumping,” Rodriguez said. “I start calling her friends.” No one had heard from either girl for hours, and both of their phones were going straight to voicemail.
Mickens’s parents went up the road to the accident site to tell the police that the two girls were missing. Soon, Rodriguez and her husband got a call telling them to get up there, too.
“So I’m there with Nisa’s mom, and we’re both keeping each other sane,” said Rodriguez. “And that’s when the Mickens family found out their news.”
Mickens’s body had been discovered with such significant trauma to the face and head that she was almost unrecognizable, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York. She had been attacked with baseball bats and a machete.
“At the time, they couldn’t locate Kayla,” Rodriguez said. “And my response to that is, Kayla would never leave Nisa, as well as Nisa would never leave Kayla. So she has to be somewhere here.”
Rodriguez got the dreaded phone call at 6:02 p.m. the next day. Her daughter had also been brutally murdered and the police had found her body nearby.
“And that’s when my world crumbled,” Rodriguez said on March 28. “She was going to become someone, for sure. And it was stolen from her.”
The attorney’s office said Cuevas had some run-ins with members and associates of the MS-13 gang in the months leading up to the murders. The dispute escalated about a week before the murders, when Cuevas and several friends were involved in an altercation with MS-13 members at Brentwood High School, the attorney’s office said.
After that incident, the MS-13 members vowed to seek revenge against Cuevas, the statement reads. One of the gang’s mottos is “Mata, viola, controla” (“Kill, rape, control”).
On Sept. 13, several members of MS-13’s Sailors clique had agreed to drive around Brentwood in different vehicles and hunt for rival gang members to kill, prosecutors said.
One car, with four gang members inside, saw Cuevas and Mickens out walking. They called the leaders of the Sailors clique, who authorized them to kill the two girls. So they did. And then they drove away.
Thirteen MS-13 gang members were arrested on March 2 and charged in connection with the murders of Cuevas and Mickens, as well as five other murders, an attempted murder, and two assaults. Drugs, racketeering, arson, and firearms charges make up the remainder of the 41 charges the defendants face.
The defendants are aged between 19 and 29, with the exception of two minors who were not named.
Ten of the 13 suspects are illegal immigrants, two are U.S. citizens, and one is a green card holder, according to Robert Capers, then-U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
“For far too long, on Long Island, MS-13 has been meting out its own version of the death penalty,” Capers said at a March 2 press conference. “The brutal murders … exemplify the depravity of a gang whose primary mission is murder.”
Since 2010, MS-13 members have been charged with more than 35 murders in the Eastern District of New York.
MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is one of the largest criminal organizations in the country, with 6,000 to 10,000 members in at least 42 states, the FBI estimates. In addition, more than 60,000 members operate internationally, mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
MS-13 continues to grow its membership and now targets younger recruits more than ever before, the FBI said. In 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force.
MS-13 was initially formed by Salvadoran immigrants that came to the United States in order to escape the civil war in their home country, according to a study published in the Journal of Gang Research in 2009.
“The gang is well-organized and is heavily involved in lucrative illegal enterprises, being notorious for its use of violence to achieve its objectives,” authors Jennifer Adams and Jesenia Pizarro wrote.
El Salvador’s supreme court designated MS-13 as a terrorist group in August 2015. The U.S. Treasury deemed MS-13 to be a transnational criminal organization in 2012, prohibiting U.S. citizens and businesses from engaging in any transactions with the gang.
Surge From Central America
Capers said MS-13 gets gang members to illegally enter the United States from Central America and recruits new members from schools and communities around the country.
During the 10-year period between 2005 and 2014, Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials arrested 4,000 members of MS-13, according to numbers obtained by Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) through freedom of information requests. CIS is a pro-immigration enforcement think tank based in Washington.
Of the 4,000 arrested, 92 percent were in the United States illegally, according to data obtained by CIS. And while they comprised 13 percent of ICE gang arrests during that period, they accounted for 35 percent of the murders.
Joe Kolb, a research fellow at CIS, has been studying the connection between MS-13 growth and the surge of unaccompanied minors coming across the southwest border from Central American countries, predominantly El Salvador.
“It was a perfect storm,” Kolb said. “We had a very lenient administration [under Obama]. We are a compassionate country—which I’m always proud to say—but we’re reaping the consequences of these policies now. I don’t want to sound like a total alarmist or a xenophobe, but the reality is … wherever the unaccompanied minors appear, MS-13 crime isn’t far behind.”
The number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the southwest border has jumped dramatically since 2012, when 24,120 minors were caught crossing the border. In fiscal year 2014, more than 68,000 minors were apprehended; the numbers dropped to almost 40,000 in 2015 and spiked again to almost 60,000 in 2016. The increases came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The surge in unaccompanied children coincided with President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy introduced in 2012, Kolb said.
“The misinterpreted perception that permeated around the region was that this was the golden ticket to get into the United States—but nobody read the fine print,” he said. The fine print Kolb is referring to is that, among other criteria, DACA was only available to minors who had been in the country since 2007.
When an unaccompanied minor crosses the southwest border and is apprehended, he or she is placed in a facility under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
ORR is responsible for the placement of the child, home assessments, and follow-up. Kolb said the follow-up is a phone call around 30 days after placement. ORR did not return a request for comment.
By definition, an unaccompanied alien child is under 18 and has no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide care and physical custody, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Regardless, Homeland Security determined that about 60 percent of the children initially determined to be “unaccompanied alien children” are released by ORR to a parent already living illegally in the United States.
The counties absorbing the greatest number of these children are Harris County in Texas, Los Angeles County, Suffolk County in New York, and Miami-Dade County in Florida.
These four counties have absorbed around 30,000 unaccompanied minors into their communities and schools in the last several years.
All four counties are also struggling with the proliferation of MS-13 gang violence.
Schools are hotbeds for gang recruitment, and with so many young men entering from Central America, there is no shortage of potential recruits.
The Brentwood school district takes the lion’s share of the minors coming up from Central America to Suffolk County, New York. In the last 3 1/2 years, the county has taken in more than 4,500 children from the ORR—the third highest number in the country. Since October last year, the county has already received 841 more minors from the ORR.
The Brentwood school district serves 20,000 students and is reaching capacity, according to district safety director Carlos Sanchez.
“We have an average of between 10 to as many as 25 new students being registered a day,” he said. Class sizes are bursting at 30 to 35 pupils per class, he said. The schools are not given any information on the children as far as immigration status, criminal record, or special needs.
“They are vulnerable, because they’re the new kids on the block,” Sanchez said. Sanchez said MS-13 members will try to recruit the new students by acting like they’re family to them. The gang members also threaten to harm the new students’ families and loved ones back home, which forces them to comply with demands or make recurring extortion payments.
“As long as we’re placing these kids in these communities—whether they’re gang members or not—we have to also remember the culture that these kids are coming from,” Kolb said.
Kolb traveled to El Salvador in December to research the violent communities.
“These are the most violent non-war countries in the world. If you have a conflict with somebody, you kill each other,” he said. “We’re not prepared as a society to address this.”
Crime in School
In one recent case that received nationwide attention, a 14-year-old girl was allegedly raped during school hours by two other students in Rockville, Maryland, on March 16.
Jose Montano, 17, and Henry Sanchez, 18, allegedly forced her into the boy’s bathroom, where they took turns raping her, according to official documents. Both teens have been charged as adults with first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sexual offense.
Sanchez, from Guatemala, is in the country illegally, according to authorities. The immigration status of Montano is unknown because he is a minor, but he is originally from El Salvador.
Prosecutors found photos on the suspects’ phones of them flashing MS-13 gang signs, but attorneys for both teens deny they are members of the gang, according to a WTOP report on March 30.
ICE arrested Sanchez’s father on March 24 after discovering he was in the country illegally. Adolfo Sanchez-Reyes, 43, a citizen of Guatemala, is currently detained and has been issued a notice to appear in an immigration court.
Rockville is in Montgomery County, Maryland, and, along with neighboring Prince George’s County, has a high number of unaccompanied minors being sent up from the border by ORR—a combined total of more than 7,500 in the last 3.5 years.
Both counties also have a growing issue with gang violence.
Montgomery County police said last June that the county had seen an “unprecedented level” of gang-related violence over the previous eight months.
Most notable were nine gang-related homicides that occurred during that timeframe—including five murders involving MS-13. The other four homicides are attributed to smaller, but just as violent, local cliques, the police department said.
The police department attributed the uptick to “a substantial increase in violence in EI Salvador that is contributing to the mass migration from the country and other parts of the region to include the influx of unaccompanied minors to the United States.”
The department said over 67 percent of known gang-related violent crimes were committed by youths aged 21 and under in 2015. Youths were responsible for all but one of the gang-related homicides with closed cases and over 85 percent of street robberies.
Being Part of the Solution
For Evelyn Rodriguez, part of the grieving process is pushing to make sure Brentwood is safer. She still travels to a nearby town to take her 7-year-old daughter to the park. And she’s afraid to have a barbecue over the summer.
But she does see some progress.
“It’s not there yet,” she said. “But I do see some type of change.”
Police are more visible on the streets, and she is working to bring programs into the school. “To help the ones being targeted, bullied, or those at risk of being recruited,” Rodriguez said.
She is advocating to introduce the STRONG program in Brentwood. STRONG, or Struggling to Reunite Our New Generation, is a youth, family, and community organization on Long Island that focuses on preventing gang and gun violence.
“I want families, parents, to know that there’s resources out there.” Rodriguez said the school let her down by not intervening when problems boiled up between her daughter and the gang members.
“I’m fighting for her—for Kayla. You’re never going to forget who Kayla Cuevas or Nisa Mickens were.”