The relentless gang violence on Long Island, N.Y., fueled by the surge of youths and families from El Salvador is reaching a fever pitch that officials are confronting head-on, despite being left in the dark by federal agencies who fail to communicate new arrival trends and details on resettlement activities to local officials.
On December 22, 2016, 13 members of the gang Salvadorans With Pride (SWP) were arrested and charged by the Nassau County District Attorney's Office with a plethora of offenses that included assault, attempted murder, conspiracy, robbery, and weapons charges. The suspects' ages ran from 15 to 23. This come on the heels of a major sweep in adjacent Suffolk County that netted 35 members of MS-13 following the murder of two teenage girls and the discovery of the remains of two teenage boys.
Since 2014, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement has placed 2,730 "unaccompanied" illegal alien youths (UACs) from Central America in Nassau County alone. The Village of Hempstead, with a population that is 44 percent Hispanic, is the epicenter of gang violence and the home of SWP and MS-13.
Sgt. Mike Marino, commanding officer of the Gang Investigation Squad for the Nassau County Police Department, sees the problems and failures associated with immigration policies on a daily basis with no perceptible relief in sight.
He says that while MS-13 and SWP have been around for nearly 20 years, it is the recent influx of unaccompanied children that has caused gang membership and violence to surge.
"MS-13 has a stranglehold on Hempstead, with the existence of multiple cliques," says Marino. He says that what distinguishes MS-13 from SWP is that all of the latter group were born in the United States of Salvadoran descent and are exclusive to Nassau County — so far.
Marino says UACs have put enormous strain on school resources. He says that hundreds showed up for the first day of school and were immediately preyed on by gang members to join. He also said that he has seen some teens arrive in the area who already were members of MS-13. The school system also facilitates gang activity, since the majority of UACs are placed in English as second language programs and are together in class the entire school day. Adding to the problem, some of the new arrivals are 20-year-olds who inexplicably are placed in freshman classes with 14- and 15-year-olds. The fear and intimidation of younger kids to join the gang is difficult to escape in these environments. Marino added that it is not unusual to see kids who were victims one year show up the following year as active gang members, having ultimately surrendered to the emotional and physical pressure to join.
Like all law enforcement agencies in communities that deal with UACs, Nassau County police are left in the dark about their arrival and background. "We don't know they are here until fights break out in school," says Marino.
He also pointed a finger at the dubious sponsor program employed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which often intentionally places UACs with sponsors who themselves are in the country illegally.
"I would guess 60 to 70 percent of the gang members we investigate are not at the addresses given to us, which makes it extremely difficult to track these kids down," Marino says. "They're almost never where they are supposed to be."
On November 30, 2016, Hempstead residents voiced their concerns to officials about the burgeoning gang problem. Hempstead has long battled turf wars between the Crips and Bloods, but MS-13 is adding a new dimension of violence as the El Salvadoran population increases in the community, many of whom are here illegally.
Lorna Matthews' son, Johnathan Harris, age 18, was murdered in 2002 by an MS-13 member, who fled to El Salvador, only to be arrested in 2015 when he attempted to legally re-enter the United States (the suspect was an American citizen). She says she can't escape the cloud of MS-13, which is only getting bigger in her current home of Hempstead, N.Y.
"They are in the building I live in and leave their graffiti in the elevator," she says.
Hempstead Chief of Police Michael McGowan told residents that the newly formed gang unit had already hit the ground running. The announcement of the modest unit of three officers did little to assuage the concerns of residents who have seen violent crime increasing. Residents fear that the MS-13 crime wave that left at least three dead earlier in the fall in Brentwood, N.Y., in adjoining Suffolk County, is coming to Hempstead.
Marino contends that over the past two years ICE has been less involved in proactive enforcement activities with his department. This is ironic given the influx of violent immigrants that have arrived on Long Island.
The "pressure cooker" Marino describes is simmering dangerously, with no relief in sight from the federal government, either in resources or communication.