The threat of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) — particularly Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) — and their efforts to evade border security to enter the US, was the subject of a hearing this week by the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security held in Central Islip, New York. The hearing ranged from local, state and federal officials to parents who’ve lost children to MS-13, stressing the need for the broad community cooperation in combating TCO gang violence.
Subcommittee chairman Pete King (R-NY) and ranking member Kathleen Rice (D-NY)opened the hearing by stressing the threat TCOs like MS-13 pose in Suffolk and Nassau Counties. In King’s opening remarks, he noted that since January 2016, there have been 17 murders linked to MS-13 in Suffolk County alone.
The hearing was split into two panels consisting of various law enforcement officers in the first and local community members in the second. The first panel offered insight on how federal, state and local officers are collaborating in combatting TCO gang violence. Assistant Director of the New York Field Office of the FBI William Sweeney said the FBI’s Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative, which began in January 1992, has allowed each field office to address street gang and drug-related violence through FBI-sponsored task forces consisting of various levels of law enforcement.
Sweeney added that more recently, the Long Island Gang Task Force (LIGTF) has been expanding their network of intelligence and collaborative efforts to improve their work.
“We’ve increased participation on our task force by adding officers from the New York State Police, and we’ve enhanced our intelligence capabilities by developing an intelligence fusion group, which is composed of intelligence personnel from the represented agencies,” Sweeney told the lawmakers. “We’ve also strengthened our relationship with the Suffolk County Police Department, to include our mutual agreement that all MS-13 homicide investigations in Suffolk County will be investigated jointly by the LIGTF and the Suffolk County Police Department’s homicide squad.”
Sweeney said the FBI has Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces (TAGs) working with domestic task forces in gaining information and support abroad in Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where ties with MS-13 primarily stem from.
Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations Angel Melendez addressed the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) interagency program in New York, Operation Matador (OPMAT), which is designed to prevent MS-13 recruitment and activity. He said OPMAT disrupts MS-13 through intelligence gathering, actionable lead development, targeted enforcement, Criminal and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) investigation development and community outreach to at-risk youth. The at-risk youth, he said, include unaccompanied minors smuggled into the US and alienated children in immigrant communities.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Thomas Sini spoke about the benefits of the collaborative efforts between county officers and the federal agencies.
“Working with our federal law enforcement partners, particularly the FBI through the Safe Streets Task Force, to work RICO cases, to build RICO cases, and RICO’s a very effective federal statute that allows us to dismantle gangs such as MS-13,” Sini said. “It carries stiff penalties, it acts as an umbrella where we can bring in numerous, large numbers of MS-13 gang members to prosecute, and it’s a great way to go after the leadership as well.”
Although the witnesses said that cooperation between local and federal law enforcement agencies has been effective, Rice added in her opening statement that involving immigrant communities is just as vital in combating TCO gang violence.
“The communities that are terrorized by MS-13 are often immigrant communities, and I think it is safe to say that immigrants want these gangs to be dismantled and brought to justice as much as anyone else — if not more,” Rice said. “I know that you cannot take on a gang like MS-13 without the help of immigrant communities. You need members of the community to talk to you, provide information, report crimes, and for that they to trust you. They need to know that stepping forward to help will not lead to them being detained and deported and ripped away from their families.”
One of the main focuses of the second panel was to engage local community members in providing feedback about their experiences with MS-13 activity. Evelyn Rodriquez and Robert Mickens were two parents who lost their daughters, Kayla Rodriquez and Nina Mickens, last fall to MS-13 who addressed the subcommittee. They said schools are centers for gang activity and recruitment.
“Kids are going to school afraid because they’re being targeted and bullied, as my daughter was,” Rodriquez said. “Parents are scared to send their kids back to school. We need to have more stronger policies, laws in place for these individuals that do this heinous crime to these other kids. They’re kids killing kids. That needs to be stopped.”
Rodriquez stressed the need for schools to provide more support and funding for their students to ensure that alienated children in school have resources, people and places to go to when they feel targeted. She also said she believes school staff should contact law enforcement when children report gang-related incidents.
Program Director of the Central American Refugee Center Patrick Young added that in the face of cracking down on MS-13 and other TCOs, it’s important to not demonize the entire immigrant community. He said that Nassau and Suffolk Counties have 526,000 immigrants out of a total population of 2.8 million, and that they have the largest suburban immigrant population in the US. He warned that stigmatizing immigrants as a whole can make it more difficult for immigrant communities and young targeted people to feel comfortable reporting to and working with law enforcement.
“A small number of young immigrants do become involved in gangs, but stigmatizing all immigrant youth as potential gang members only convinces the young that they have no allies among the non-Latino officials they sometimes feel are arrayed against them,” Young stated.
Young added that involving the office of Refugee Resettlement with law enforcement would be an effective, broad way of identifying individuals, especially unaccompanied minors, who may be affiliated with MS-13 while also serving other immigrants in integrating with their communities. He said that with the recent upswing of Immigrant and Customs Enforcement raids, fear has struck immigrant communities and that restructuring law enforcement’s relationship with local citizens is important. Someof the steps taken by Long Island police departments, he said, include ensuring one in five new officers is fluent in Spanish and increasing efforts of dialogue between officers and community members.
“We can’t make inroads against MS-13 without working with the community,” Young said.