Taming the ‘animals’ of MS-13: Trump takes his gang crackdown to the suburbs

For the second time in a year, President Trump will travel to Long Island Wednesday for a forum on combatting MS-13, the small but violent street gang that has been a central focus of his crackdown on illegal immigration.

Outside the pockets of Long Island and a handful of communities in Maryland, Virginia, and California where MS-13 is mostly active, Trump’s apparent obsession with the gang — whose membership of predominantly Central American immigrants makes up a small fraction of the country’s active gang members — has been met with confusion and criticism. Some law enforcement leaders have reportedly questioned the focus on MS-13 rather than bigger threats. Some critics say the administration is deliberately amplifying violent activities of this particular group to advance its anti-immigrant agenda.

ICE agents frisk a suspected MS-13 gang member after arresting him at his home on March 29, 2018, in Brentwood, N.Y. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
ICE agents frisk a suspected MS-13 gang member after arresting him at his home on March 29, 2018, in Brentwood, N.Y. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Politics aside, though, one authority on the gang — Jim McGovern, former head of the criminal division at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Long Island — says MS-13 “deserves every bit” of the attention it’s receiving.

“They are one of the most violent groups of gangs that I’ve ever encountered,” said McGovern, who dealt with countless violent criminals during his two decades as a federal prosecutor, including a man who murdered two New York City police officers. “The level of brutality of the stuff that they do is unmatched, frankly.”

Traditionally, gangs have employed violence for a purpose: “a method of enforcement” for other criminal enterprises, such as illegal gambling, extortion, and drug trafficking, he said. “Violence isn’t their raison d’être, so to speak,” said McGovern. For MS-13, however, it is.

While members of the gang engage in drug sales and other crimes, their primary activity is carrying out deadly attacks to settle disputes or take vengeance on suspected rivals or informants. “Many of these guys have full-time jobs,” McGovern said. MS-13 “cliques” have increasingly wreaked havoc on the Long Island communities they’ve inhabited for at least a decade, turning public schools into recruiting centers and carrying out gruesome murders in the woods, with young immigrants from Central America as their primary targets.

McGovern recalled one particularly brutal case from 2003 in which three MS-13 members lured a 22-year-old man — whose yellow T-shirt mistakenly led them to believe he was a member of the Latin Kings — into the woods of Long Island’s Central Islip, where they beat him with a fire extinguisher and piece of lumber before stabbing him to death with a pocket knife and hiding his body in a drainpipe.

In another case tried by McGovern in 2006, an MS-13 member was found guilty of murdering another gang member who was found to be cooperating with Nassau County Police. Former members testified during the trial that MS-13 rules requires all police informants to be executed.

“The worst murders I’ve seen are them killing their own for suspected cooperation with law enforcement,” McGovern told Yahoo News.

McGovern noted that neither of those cases — nor the many others his district prosecuted during his tenure — resulted in more than a few short stories in the local news.

“This is something that nobody’s been paying attention to for a long time, and it’s a good thing somebody’s starting to pay attention to it,” he said.

President Trump speaks to law enforcement officials about MS-13 on July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, N.Y. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump speaks to law enforcement officials about MS-13 on July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, N.Y. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump has certainly called attention to it.

Before speaking to law enforcement officers in Brentwood, L.I., last summer, Trump tweeted that the New York suburb was “under siege” by MS-13. Law enforcement had recently linked the gang to 17 murders in the area over the previous 18 months, including the shocking slayings of two teenage girls who were found hacked to death with machetes.

White House adviser Stephen Miller told reporters that the president would use the visit to Brentwood, a predominantly Hispanic town that was the site of a spate of gang murders, as an opportunity to push for more deportations as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

During his speech, Trump blamed previous administrations for allowing MS-13 to grow in the U.S. by failing to enforce immigration laws. John Amaya, who served as former deputy chief of staff at ICE under President Obama, disputes that.

“This [MS-13] has been an alarming problem for some time and to say it’s just now becoming a concern and focus of the agency is a real insult to the agents and the officers who have been putting themselves at risk every day for many, many years,” Amaya told Yahoo News. “The focus or emphasis on MS-13 is not new. What’s new is the politicized nature of the focus from this president and this attorney general.”

Amaya said there are many people on the Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO, side of things who feel emboldened and supported by the messaging coming out of the White House, even though, as far as he knows, little has changed beyond the language.

“In my opinion, regardless of what they’re hearing, the support was pretty significant before,” he said. “It just didn’t translate to this level of rhetoric and discourse. It was more operational, in terms of funding streams.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has eagerly followed the president’s lead, assigning two additional Assistant U.S. Attorneys to the Eastern District of New York. A press release announcing the additional resources stated that “the two additional federal prosecutors will enhance the Office’s ability to prosecute violent crimes committed by members and associates of La Mara Salvatrucha, also known as the MS-13, a transnational criminal organization, with the objective of continuing and increasing the Office’s efforts to dismantle and incapacitate the MS-13 within the Eastern District of New York and beyond.”

Dozens of indictments against alleged MS-13 members over the last several months imply that the crackdown is working, though other evidence raises questions about who exactly is being swept up in the effort to crack down on MS-13. After months in detention, for example, almost all of the teenagers arrested last summer in a major ICE operation targeting MS-13 members were released due to insufficient evidence of their alleged gang affiliation. The agency has continued its pursuit of alleged MS-13 members, with several more operations yielding dozens arrests over the past few months.

Suspected MS-13 members are escorted to their arraignment in Mineola, N.Y., on Jan. 11, 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
Suspected MS-13 members are escorted to their arraignment in Mineola, N.Y., on Jan. 11, 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

In fact, Amaya said that beyond the new rhetoric and additional pressures, ICE isn’t receiving much additional support or resources for the fight against MS-13.

“A lot of [ICE agents] take pride in the fact that they do more than some of their colleagues in other agencies, proportionately, with significantly less,” he said.

Still, Amaya expressed concern about the president’s rhetoric on MS-13. At a roundtable last week with California officials opposed to their state’s sanctuary laws Trump referred vaguely to immigrants who’d been deported as “animals.” Trump later defended the comment by insisting he was talking specifically about members of MS-13. The White House press office doubled down on the controversial statement Monday, issuing a press release titled “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13.”

“There is no question these guys are dangerous,” said Amaya. But, he added, “There is evidence that demonstrates a lot of these MS-13 members are U.S. citizens [or] they are lawfully present in the U.S.”

“It is often too convenient for them to conflate undocumented immigrants with transnational crime,” he said, arguing this is a “dangerous message to send, and a dishonest message to send, because not all undocumented immigrants are criminals and not all criminals are undocumented immigrants.”

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