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‘They Keep Finding Bodies’: Gang Violence in Long Island Town Fuels Immigration Debate

Mon, October 03, 2016 12:22 PM | NYGIA (Administrator)


Residents of Brentwood, N.Y., at a memorial for Nisa Mickens, 15, who was murdered along with her best friend, Kayla Cuevas, 16, last month. The police suspect MS-13, a transnational gang, in the killings. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

BRENTWOOD, N.Y. — Four dead teenagers. Two weeks. One town. And a ruthless gang, the authorities say, was most likely responsible for the toll. Again.

On Sept. 13, Nisa Mickens, 15, and her best friend, Kayla Cuevas, 16, were murdered, their battered bodies found near an elementary school here. A week later and just two miles away, the skeletal remains of two more teenagers — identified as Oscar Acosta, 19, and Miguel Garcia-Moran, 15 — were found in the woods near a psychiatric hospital. Oscar had been missing since May, Miguel since February. Their deaths have been ruled homicides.

Brentwood, a hardscrabble town of nearly 60,000 on Long Island, 40 miles east of Manhattan, has reached another crisis point. For nearly two decades, MS-13, a gang with roots in Los Angeles and El Salvador, has been terrorizing the town, the authorities say, especially its young people. Since 2009, its members have been accused of at least 14 murders, court and police records show.

School officials are scrambling. Police officers are searching. Students are frightened. Parents are anguished.

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“It’s so hard, I’m hurting,” Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla’s mother, said last week. “I wish I could hold my daughter again.”


Clockwise from top left, Oscar Acosta, Kayla Cuevas, Miguel Garcia-Moran and Nisa Mickens.

In her first interview since Kayla’s funeral, Ms. Rodriguez spoke measuredly about how her daughter had been bullied by gang members inside and outside her high school.

“To me, it’s worse than it was before; it’s everywhere,” said Ms. Rodriguez, a 1987 graduate of Brentwood Ross High School, where her daughter was a student. “This is ridiculous,” she added. “We need some type of assistance to help our police officers here and see if they can come together to figure out a plan to make things better for the kids now.”


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The path to such a plan, however, runs through a fractured Suffolk County. Its former police chief is headed to jail, its district attorney is under federal investigation and a Justice Department settlement mandated changes in the Police Department in 2013 after findings of bias against Latino residents.

Tensions simmer here because some residents say they believe an increase in Central American migrants to town has led to the increase in gang violence. According to 2014 census figures compiled by Queens College, Brentwood’s population is 68 percent Latino or Hispanic, with more than 17,000 residents claiming to be from El Salvador.

Timothy Sini, who became the Suffolk County police commissioner 11 months ago, after his predecessor, James Burke, pleaded guilty to civil rights violations and obstruction of justice, has vowed to eradicate the gangs.


Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, Kayla’s parents. “It’s so hard, I’m hurting,” Ms. Rodriguez, said. “I wish I could hold my daughter again.” Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

“The only people in Brentwood who have anything to fear are the criminals,” Mr. Sini said. “That’s because there is a tsunami of law enforcement officers at their doorsteps.”

The department has increased uniformed patrols and door-to-door canvassing, and rejoined the eight-member Long Island Gang Task Force of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Sini said he met recently with dozens of agencies including Homeland Security Investigations and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“It’s not a good time to be a gang member in Brentwood,” he said.

One gang member was arrested and was in federal custody for questioning, Mr. Sini added, although a motive for the murders was still unclear. The F.B.I. confirmed it was assisting the police.

The Brentwood School District held a community forum last month with elected officials and parents that ran for four hours.

There, according to Ms. Rodriguez, school officials said some students had been “red-flagged” for having possible gang affiliations.


Rob Mickens and Elizabeth Alvarado, Nisa’s parents, at a vigil for the girls last month. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

“So if they are red-flagged, why are they in the school?” Ms. Rodriguez said. “Kids are being targeted. They’re trying to find some type of safe way to even go to school,” she added. “Being in school, they always have to look over their shoulder to see who’s walking.”


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Brentwood has 4,400 high school students divided into two schools, and administrators say the environment is safe.

“Gang members rarely present themselves in the schools,” Richard Loeschner, the principal of Brentwood Ross High School, said. “If they do, we take care of that pretty quickly.”

But ultimately, he said, after acknowledging that the administration knew of about 20 to 25 students in the district with possible gang affiliations, there is only so much officials can do.

“We can’t exclude a kid because we suspect they are in a gang,” Mr. Loeschner said. “That’s state and federal law that they are entitled to an education.”


Levi McIntyre, the superintendent of the Brentwood School District, at Kayla’s wake. “It’s tearing the fabric of our community apart,” Dr. McIntyre said of gang violence in the town. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

Even before the girls’ murders, students were subject to random screenings with metal detectors, which have increased over the past few weeks, he added. There are no detectors at the entrances of either high school, however.

Some parents were concerned that the school’s response to the violence was not proactive enough. Levi McIntyre, the school superintendent, sent an email to parents warning their children not to wear royal blue, the color identified with MS-13, or clothes displaying the Salvadoran flag. A student on the way to school, he wrote, recently had his blue shirt torn off by gang members and burned.

MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by immigrants from El Salvador escaping civil war. The abbreviation stands for Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly translates to “Salvadoran street posse.”

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The authorities say the gang has been in Suffolk County since around 1998, and is organized in cliques bearing names like the Brentwood Locos Salvatruchas. Leaders gather to discuss their lines of business — extortion, prostitution, robbery, drug dealing — and to authorize the killings of chavalas, or members of rival gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, court papers say.


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In 2009, a 15-year-old boy, Christopher Hamilton, was fatally shot in the head after an MS-13 crew in search of chavalas opened fire with rifles and handguns on a house party on American Boulevard here.


The scene outside Kayla’s wake. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

Two years later, an 18-year-old Brentwood man was fatally shot in his driveway, and a 22-year-old local leader of MS-13 was convicted of the killing.

“In the past, it used to be like rival gangs on each other,” Dr. McIntyre said. “But now it has taken another turn. When it goes after all kids, it’s a whole new realm. It’s tearing the fabric of our community apart.”

Noel Vega’s son was a classmate of the murdered girls, who wondered whether he could be next.

“He’s more upset about the fact that they keep finding bodies,” Mr. Vega said, standing outside a Brentwood funeral home for Kayla’s wake with fellow members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association. They are not the only group offering unofficial security to the town; he noted that the crisis even brought the Guardian Angels to Brentwood.

Of his son, Mr. Vega added: “He actually wants to move out of Brentwood; he wants to move out of state. He’s upset and he fears for the loss of his friends and himself. It gets me upset; we all get upset.”

The recent murders have exacerbated disputes in the town over immigration policy, which Donald J. Trump, the Republican candidate for president, fueled during last week’s debate by saying that the gangs roaming the streets were made up of illegal immigrants.


Friends of Kayla wore T-shirts designed in her honor to her wake. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

“There’s been a huge influx, to be honest with you,” said Ray Mayo, the president of the Brentwood Association of Concerned Citizens, who added that he was upset over undocumented immigrants crowding rental properties. “It seems like a whole new set of gang members who have stirred the pot up.”

Two law enforcement authorities, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing murder investigation, said that over the last several years the gang has sought to enlist recent immigrants from Central America because they are often more vulnerable to recruitment.


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But some recently settled families are just as worried about their own children’s safety.

“I am afraid, as a Salvadoran,” said Ana, 38, a mother of two girls, one in high school. She fled El Salvador in 2006 and has since become a member of Make the Road New York, an immigrant activist group. She did not want to give her full name for fear of retribution.

“It makes me feel bad that people think this of all Salvadorans,” she said. “Violence was the reason I left — when they killed my brother. And now we are experiencing the same violence.”

Distrust of the Suffolk County police among Latinos is palpable and long documented. Residents said they were dismayed by a dearth of Spanish-speaking officers, and undocumented immigrants in particular often worry that if they report information, the authorities will turn them over to immigration officials.


Supporters at the girls’ vigil. The murders have exacerbated disputes in the town over immigration policy. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

Mr. Sini said that would not happen, and that he was trying to reassure immigrant communities to work with the police.

Ms. Rodriguez, whose parents came from Puerto Rico, said that two years ago, when gang members threatened Kayla on a friend’s block, she went to the police.

“I got attitude like they were talking to somebody off the street,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “They wouldn’t even report it,” she added. “They told me to tell her: ‘Don’t go on the block.’”

The feeling of helplessness is spreading among the teenagers.

At a vigil held for the murdered girls before a football game, some students held signs: “Help Us!” “Stop the Violence!” Others shook their heads when Mr. Sini told students to call a hotline for investigative tips.

“We’re the ones out here, dealing with it all,” said a 16-year-old boy who would give only his nickname, Tiny T. “They think they can do something, but they’re just fooling. They can’t do nothing.”


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At Kayla’s wake, a 17-year-old student too afraid of MS-13 to give his name said: “You don’t know who’s watching you, who’s following you. Just yesterday, a group of guys in a car with blue bandannas followed a girl home in Brentwood.”

He, his mother and his cousin wore T-shirts that read “Justice for Kayla,” which they had printed at the mall. “Afraid?” his cousin, a 19-year-old woman, said. “There’s not even a limit to afraid.”

At memorials for both Kayla and Nisa, on the cul-de-sac near where their bodies were found, basketballs sat among the glass candles and deflated balloons. Kayla, a tenacious athlete, was going to try out for the varsity basketball team this year. Instead, her mother was starting a scholarship fund called Ball Is My Life.

Ms. Rodriguez hoped her daughter’s death would at least stop the cycle. “It can’t go on anymore,” she said.

Correction: October 2, 2016

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the mother of Kayla Cuevas, one of the girls who was killed in what the authorities said was a gang-related homicide. Her name is Evelyn Rodriguez, not Eveylyn. The error was repeated in a picture caption.

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