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MS-13 Morphing After Crackdown, Experts Say

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A crackdown on MS-13 has prompted a game of whack-a-mole, as gang investigators see varying factions of the transnational criminal organization morph in an effort to survive each time arrests are made.

Local and federal investigators have made rooting out the gang a top priority. At the same time, Patrias and ABK are two resurrected MS-13 cliques in Brentwood and Central Islip loosely affiliated with other gangs, according to a self-proclaimed MS-13 insider.

“No one knows about this, except for people who are in it,” the 30-year-old Brentwood resident says, referring to gangbangers as community “control freaks.”

MS-13, or La Mara Salvatrucha, is an ultraviolent street gang headquartered in El Salvador and known to distribute illicit drugs. Salvadoran immigrants formed the gang in Los Angeles in the 1980s. A quadruple murder that the gang’s members allegedly committed in Central Islip last year triggered two visits from President Donald Trump and one from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The gang is estimated to have 10,000 members nationwide. The White House said during Trump’s last visit in May that 2,000 of those are on Long Island. Nassau County police said they have identified about 500 active members. Suffolk County police said they have identified approximately 386 MS-13 members and 193 MS-13 associates.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham, lead prosecutor in the case against the alleged MS 13 gangsters charged in the 2016 killings of teens Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas in Brentwood, was recently appointed to a new transnational crime task force to stamp out MS-13 on Long Island. The machete-wielding gang members are responsible for at least 25 deaths on Long Island since 2016, authorities say. Local law enforcement leaders confirm that they have seen the gang evolve since the crackdown.

“We’re seeing cliques of MS-13, and some of these cliques have been completely annihilated, and what they do is if there are any members left, the target’s assumed by existing cliques, such as the Brentwood Locos Salvatruchos, Huntington Criminal Locotes Salvatruchos,” says Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini. “What happens when you disrupt a gang is that they try to adapt, and you see alliances among gangs that you normally wouldn’t see.”

As a result of multiple arrests of members, a clique leader will oversee a couple of different sects, but still remain in communication with the leadership in El Salvador, he says. That’s why local investigators are working with El Salvadoran officials to eradicate the gang.

“We need to invest in the cooperation of the two countries through gang prevention and gang intervention programs,” Sini says.

“In terms of numbers, they’re the worst gang we have,” former El Salvador Police Chief Rodrigo Avila said last month at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s 12th Annual Gang Seminar.

More than 8,600 children from Central America between the ages of 6 and 17 made their way to LI in the past four years, forcing government and nonprofit intervention before the socially disadvantaged children can become the supply chain, or next victims, of the gang. Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon says that just as all politics is local, so is the gang issue.

“When we talk about gangs, we always think about the bigger gangs,” he says. “There’s always these subsets, and these subsets come from local communities.”

Jim Nielsen, a retired NYPD officer and former Rikers Island Corrections Officer, says that gang members often find themselves in a catch-22.

“If they’re not in a gang, they get preyed on,” he says. “I don’t pity or condone them or what they do, but joining the MS-13 is one of the great philosophical questions of our time, because they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”