Bodies started turning up in South Shore parks and woodlands in the past year and a half: teenagers hacked to death with machetes or shot in the face by members of the ruthless El Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
At first, we thought the murder of a Valley Stream teen in the Massapequa Preserve in March 2017 was an isolated incident. It wasn’t. Julio Cesar Gonzales-Espantzay was just the first of five MS-13 victims to turn up in a dense forest, in what can only be described as a killing spree.
On June 4, Nassau County police identified the fifth victim of MS-13 as Josue Amaya Leonor, 19, of Roosevelt, who reportedly attended Freeport High School. Before him, another victim was found in a woodland off the Southern State Parkway, between Baldwin and Roosevelt; one in Cow Meadow Park, at the southern end of Main Street in Freeport; and another in a forest off the Sunrise Highway, near Long Island Rail Road tracks, between Freeport and Merrick.
In other words, the bodies are turning up not somewhere else, but in the middle of our neighborhoods.
We are learning more about MS-13, whose name is now familiar to most Long Islanders, if only because President Trump has launched an aggressive campaign with U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican of Seaford, to eradicate the gang here.
MS-13 is vast criminal organization, with 50,000 members worldwide. The gang’s reach extends from El Salvador to most U.S. states, South America, Europe and Africa. It has even been tied to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
International authorities, however, often struggle to track down the gang in order to lock up its murderous crews, known as “cliques,” because the organization is decentralized. Much as a terrorist group operates, it has hundreds of local cells that share the gang’s violent ideology but do not report to a central command, and follow their own rules. In fact, MS-13’s various factions often battle one another in deadly internecine feuds.
Stamp out one MS-13 cell and another appears to take its place. Think of the gang as a cancer that has metastasized across the globe. And, much like cancer, it kills indiscriminately. Members couldn’t care less that Long Island is America’s first suburb, with a longstanding tradition of low crime rates and superior schools. For them it’s just another base of operations to carry out their main business — forcing vulnerable and desperate teenage girls from Central and South America into prostitution and trafficking them to cities around the country — and its secondary business, street-level heroin dealing.
Trump took a step in the right direction by holding a summit in Bethpage in May that brought together law enforcement officials, anti-gang advocates and the families of MS-13 victims. The event became so politicized, however, that speakers’ voices were largely drowned out by the rhetorical tumult.
Dozens of protesters marched and chanted outside the Morrelly Center, tying Trump’s stance against MS-13 to what they believe are his anti-immigrant policy proposals. They contended that the president was using fear of the gang to push his nationalistic agenda. And Trump didn’t help his case by blaming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for MS-13’s virulent spread.
Last fall, we saw the politicization of MS-13 at the local level, when the state Republican Party sent out a campaign palm card that attempted to tie the gang’s presence in Nassau County to Laura Curran, then the Democratic candidate for county executive. It was nonsense, of course.
Eliminating MS-13 is a complex proposition. The Herald offered its suggestions in an editorial last November, titled “It will take us all working together to defeat MS-13.” School districts like Freeport, Hempstead and Roosevelt clearly need more resources to provide the social services and after-school activities to keep young people — particularly Hispanic teens — away from MS-13. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent commitment of $11.5 million to provide such services in Long Island districts was a start, but so much more remains to be done.
This is certain: As is true with terrorist organizations, MS-13 needs chaos, particularly political chaos, to operate and strengthen its forces. Now, not later, is the time for Republicans and Democrats to agree to fight this scourge as one. Otherwise, we could continue to see bodies turning up in South Shore woodlands.