CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y.—By visiting Long Island last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought national attention to a community besieged by gang violence.
“I have a message for the gangs that target young people: We are targeting you. We are coming after you,” Sessions said at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, less than three miles from the park where four young men were found murdered two weeks earlier.
The brutal manner in which the four youths, aged between 16 and 20, were killed “is consistent with the modus operandi of MS-13,” according to Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini.
MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is a transnational criminal organization that has flourished in places like Suffolk County in the last several years. Although the gang formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, it has deep ties to El Salvador—and, with an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America resettling in Suffolk County, its violence is escalating.
Since September last year, 11 bodies have been discovered in Central Islip and neighboring Brentwood—all murders connected to MS-13, and most of the victims were teenagers.
Sessions said President Donald Trump is “particularly alert” to the murders in Suffolk County and “the young people that we’ve lost.”
“The MS-13 motto is ‘kill, rape, control,'” Sessions said. “Our motto is going to be justice for victims and consequences for criminals.”
Sessions said the policy of allowing unfettered access to the United States for unaccompanied minors—those under 18 crossing the border without parents—brings problems.
Homeland Security has determined that about 60 percent of the children initially determined to be “unaccompanied alien children” are released to a parent who is already living illegally in the United States.
“Bad guys know how this system works and they have exploited it,” Sessions said. “We cannot continue with this transporting across our border, illegal immigrants who have not been properly vetted and are actually part of criminal organizations.”
In March, 13 MS-13 gang members were arrested in Suffolk County and charged with seven murders, among dozens of other charges. 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. Seven of the suspects arrived in Suffolk County as unaccompanied minors.
More than 4,500 unaccompanied minors have resettled in Suffolk County in the last 3 1/2 years—at least 80 percent of them from Central America.
Unaccompanied minors, if they don’t already have connections to MS-13, become prime targets for recruitment.
“They [MS-13] recruit unaccompanied minors. And every time they convert a young person to their depraved life of violence and crime, they steal those young people’s future and our nation’s future,” Sessions said. He said MS-13 recruits members in high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools.
The attorney general allayed concerns that illegal immigrants were scared to step forward with information regarding crimes due to fear of deportation.
“We’re not, to my knowledge, out seeking down witnesses for crimes to deport,” Sessions said.
Sini has reiterated this position, saying his police officers are prohibited from inquiring about the immigration status of witnesses or victims.
Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said the gang violence has “really been reaching a crescendo here of late, especially with the attorney general coming.”
Levy was the county executive from 2004 to 2011. He helped set up an anti-gang task force in 2010 after the region experienced a spike in gang violence. The unit, which included agents from the FBI and local police, was “very successful in knocking out many of their kingpins,” Levy said.
The current county administration disbanded the gang task force for several years, and Levy says this “most illogical and wrong-headed policy decision” is partly to blame for the recent rash of violence.
“It allowed these gangs to reconstitute themselves,” he said.
The loss of the gang task force, coupled with the major influx of thousands of unaccompanied minors into the county not long after, was a “double whammy,” Levy said.
“You had schools that were now having to deal with hundreds of these young people who didn’t speak English, with no parents,” Levy said. “At the same time you’ve got 15-, 16-, 17-year-old young males coming here without parents, who gravitated toward the gangs—who were providing them protection and a sense of home. Who would think that this was going to be a good idea?”
Levy suggests the county give Sessions a list of all the presently incarcerated illegal immigrants convicted of violent crimes, as well as gang members who were incarcerated over the last five years who are here illegally.
“And ask for them to be deported.”
Federal and State Resources
In Long Island, Sessions also met with leaders from county and state law enforcement agencies to discuss the current efforts to combat violent crime and how the Justice Department can provide assistance.
Sessions then met with the families of MS-13 victims Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens of Brentwood. Cuevas, 16, and Mickens, 15, were killed in September with baseball bats and a machete.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has added more than a dozen state police, including six new investigators, to boost the FBI-led Long Island Gang Task Force.
“The recent rash of gang-related violence by MS-13 has threatened the safety of our communities,” Cuomo said in a statement on April 26.