NEW YORK – A wave of gang killings in New York’s Long Island suburbs, many involving teenage victims, has caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to travel Friday to one of the towns hit hardest by the violence.
Trump is expected to meet with law enforcement officers and discuss the MS-13 street gang, which his administration has made a symbol of the need for stricter immigration laws. That comes after a previous visit from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has vowed to crack down on the gang and headed to El Salvador Thursday.
Trump has compared MS-13’s “meanness” to that of al-Qaida and has promised he’d rid the country of it.
Here’s a look at the violence that has gotten the president’s attention:
Police officials say that since Jan. 1, 2016, there have been 17 murders by MS-13 members in Suffolk County, many of which have been in just two neighbouring suburbs, Brentwood and Central Islip. Some victims were high school students whose remains turned up months after they vanished, hidden in wooded areas or found on the grounds of an old psychiatric hospital.
The deaths began to get attention after best friends Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, both students at Brentwood High School, were beaten and hacked to death in September by a carload of gang members who spotted them walking down the street. Investigators said Cuevas had been feuding verbally with gang members.
In April, three teenagers and a 20-year-old man were massacred in a park in Central Islip. Prosecutors said they were lured to the park and then ambushed by at least a dozen MS-13 members wielding machetes and other weapons. One person escaped. Prosecutors said they were marked for death because some were suspected of being rival gang members – something their families denied.
Twenty people have been charged publicly in eight homicides in recent months. They include five people accused in the deaths of Mickens and Cuevas and 10 people in the Central Islip massacre.
All but a few of those charged in the deaths were citizens of El Salvador or Honduras who entered the U.S. illegally, according to law enforcement officials.
WHAT IS MS-13:
MS-13, or La Mara Salvatrucha, originated in the 1980s in Los Angeles then entrenched itself in El Salvador and other parts of Central America when its leaders were deported.
The gang has had a presence in several U.S. states for many years. The FBI estimates that it has roughly 10,000 members in the U.S., though those numbers are fuzzy.
Gang recruits are often middle- and high-school students predominantly in immigrant communities with roots in El Salvador, law enforcement officials have said.
Suffolk County has a large Salvadoran community of more than 40,000 people. Police there have estimated the gang currently has several hundred members.
Trump and Sessions have said that aggressive immigration enforcement is the answer to MS-13, and the administration is already boasting of success.
“Big progress being made in ridding our country of MS-13 gang members and gang members in general,” Trump tweeted Thursday.
In a speech in Iowa last month, he said, “We are moving them out of the country by the thousands, by the thousands.”
Federal authorities have announced the arrests of hundreds of suspected MS-13 gang members in recent months, but that claim of getting rid of MS-13 members “by the thousands” may be an exaggeration.
Deportations from the U.S. to El Salvador through July 27 have actually dropped since the same period last year, from 12,218 to 10,473, according to a spokeswoman from the Embassy of El Salvador.
That number includes all deportations, not just gang members, who in most years comprise just a small fraction of that total.
In a report to Congress last month, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said that from Oct. 1, 2016, through June 4, 2017, agency enforcers had arrested 772 MS-13 members and associates.
The crackdown has stoked some fears about peaceful immigrants getting swept up, tossed out of the U.S. and returned to countries they fled to avoid rampant gang violence.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said it believes at least nine children were placed in restrictive custody as the result of unconfirmed allegations of gang activity by Suffolk police. They said the suspected gang activity came about because they played soccer with suspected affiliates or wore red clothing _ a shirt with the Chicago Bulls logo.
“We are saddened and outraged to see President Trump seek to use local tragedies for political gain and particularly to fuel his hateful anti-immigrant agenda,” Walter Barrientos, a member of the activist group Make the Road NY, said at a news conference in Brentwood Thursday. “We say loud and clear that he is not welcomed here.”
Rosa Lanza, of Hempstead, said in Spanish, speaking through a translator, that she had lived a productive life on Long Island for 30 years.
“We are not all criminals,” she said.