National News

MS-13 Was Targeted in Trump’s Speech. Why?

Posted January 31, 2018 2:49 p.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2018 2:54 p.m. EST

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Donald Trump said that immigrants in the country illegally “have caused the loss of many innocent lives,” and he paid special attention to the gang known as MS-13. Many of its members, he said, “took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors” and then ended up murdering American citizens.

In the gallery as his guests were the parents of two teenagers from Brentwood, New York, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who were killed by the gang in 2016. They cried when Trump told the story of their children’s deaths.

Kayla, 16, had been feuding with MS-13 members at school and on social media, prosecutors have said, and Nisa, on the eve of her 16th birthday, was with her on Sept. 13, 2016, when the gang members attacked as they were walking down a street about 8:30 p.m. Both girls were bludgeoned to death with baseball bats and machetes.

That night on Long Island brought attention to the working-class, immigrant community, where just seven months later, MS-13 struck again. Four Latino young men — three of whom were immigrants — were killed in the woods behind a soccer field in nearby Central Islip. Authorities arrested more than 15 members of MS-13 for the homicides. In a span of 17 months on Long Island, there were 17 murders attributed to MS-13.

— Where Did the Gang Come From?

MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador escaping civil war. The abbreviation stands for Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly translates to “Salvadoran street posse.” The government has said that it has an estimated 10,000 members across the country, though that figure has been widely disputed.

In the mid-1990s, the government started deporting the immigrant gang members, which helped grow its leadership base in El Salvador. At the same time, MS-13 migrated to other areas of the country with large immigrant populations. Today, it is considered transnational, existing in countries such as Honduras and Mexico.

The gang draws heavily on teenage boys — or younger — for recruits, and generally does not survive on the global trafficking of drugs, guns or people. The members recruit through extortion and intimidation, and often to be initiated, they must kill. Not all members are immigrants, however. But many of the their targets are.

The girls killed on Long Island, Kayla and Nisa, were U.S.-born. But the four Latino young men murdered in 2017 all came from immigrant families. Two of those victims had fled gang violence in Honduras and had pending asylum applications.

As federal prosecutors on Long Island said of MS-13’s methods: “Much of what they do and how they behave boils down to violence for the sake of violence.”

— What Is the Connection to Illegal Immigration?

The “loophole” in Trump’s speech has been immigration authorities’ approach to children who arrive at the border alone — “unaccompanied alien children,” in government parlance, who are eligible for special protections. Children who are fleeing violence in their home countries can apply for asylum. Others, after a lengthy court process, would be eligible for legal residence if they prove they were abused, neglected or abandoned by a parent in their home country.

Young migrants have surged across the border in recent years because of the gangs and poverty in Central America. They often end up living with family members or court-appointed guardians while their cases are adjudicated.

In Brentwood, where Kayla and Nisa went to school, more than 4,000 school-age migrants entered the district over the past several years, officials have said.

Trump, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, visited the area last year, vowing to decimate the gang. Sessions said that MS-13 smuggled members into the country using the unaccompanied minors program. And yet, local authorities and community activists say, the reality is many gang members were recruited in the United States as vulnerable new arrivals.

— How Is the President Proposing to Stop It?

Trump’s proposal did not make clear what would happen with unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States, other than increasing border security to no longer allow gang members “to break into our country.”

Trump also singled out Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Celestino Martinez for his efforts in fighting gang violence, saying Martinez “commanded an operation to track down gang members on Long Island. His team has arrested nearly 400, including more than 220 from MS-13.”

Martinez was part of an effort called Operation Matador, which started in May 2017.

Since September 2016, Suffolk County police said they have arrested more than 300 gang members, and for those they cannot charge locally or federally, they cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to arrest gang members who are in the country undocumented.