06.03.12

Central American Gang MS-13 Cuts Swath of Murder and Mayhem Across Long Island

Gang violence has increased around the country, particularly in suburban areas such as Long Island, where brutal murders have been commonplace. Matthew DeLuca reports on the law-enforcement officers trying to deal with the ever-shifting reality.

Near midnight on March 17, 2010, Mario Alberto Canton Quijada—known as “Baby Blue”—sat in the back seat of a Ford Explorer as his fellow gang members drove it down to the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens.

In the car with Quijada were Carlos “Silencio” Ortega, 22 at the time, and three other members of MS-13, the brutal Central American gang that in recent years has established an extensive presence in formerly quiet suburban areas such as Long Island.

Police trying to investigate the gang have repeatedly run up against a wall of silence, but they are fighting back: in recent months more than 40 alleged MS-13 members from Long Island have been indicted in New York courts on a range of charges that include racketeering, murder (attempted and accomplished), assaults with dangerous weapons, and conspiracy.

No one can know exactly what Quijada thought was coming that night in 2010, but as a member of Surenos Locos Salvatruchas, the Queens-based clique of MS-13, he knew the rules, even if he didn’t want to abide by them. The peaceful, empty span of beach cannot have been a comforting sight.

According to documents provided to The Daily Beast by the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, Ortega and the three others walked Quijada down toward the water. Someone pointed a .22-caliber pistol at his head and pulled the trigger, but it jammed, so out came a machete and knives. MS-13 likes the machete because it is heavy and sharp, and merely owning one won’t get you arrested in New York. According to the documents, Ortega and the men he was with drove the machete with such force into Quijada’s skull that it stuck in his eye socket.

The murder was a good example of the way MS-13 treats its friends. Engaging in violence, particularly against those thought to have betrayed the gang, is the surest way to jockey for promotion, according to court papers filed by an FBI special agent in Ortega’s case, and the pattern shows itself again and again in the gang’s conduct on Long Island.

Quijada’s own crime, by the brutal law of MS-13’s land, was that he refused to commit one. In particular, other members had complained that he wasn’t violent enough toward other gangs, that he didn’t jump to draw blood, according to the documents.

During the day on March 16, Quijada had been given a last chance to make himself useful by shooting a member of a rival gang. He refused.

The crew that gathered for Quijada’s disciplining weren’t all from Quijada’s clique, but they all wanted him dealt with. Ortega was one of those awarded the task.

As the alleged killers walked back toward their car, the police pulled up and scooped up three of the men, but Ortega ran. The officers quickly found what remained of Quijada, but for the next two years they could not locate a hair from Ortega.

When Ortega, now 24, was finally located and taken into police custody on March 26 of this year, he waived his Miranda rights. This makes it sound like he made a legal decision, but what he really did was brag. Yes, he said through an interpreter, he had entered the country illegally from El Salvador, where he was a citizen. Yes, he’d agreed to shoot two other men in Brentwood, Long Island, in February 2010, killing one of them, a 20-year-old named David Sandler who was believed to be a member of a rival gang. And yes, he had helped to kill Quijada.

Ortega, who is among the dozens of recently indicted gang members, has pleaded not guilty and is due to appear next appear in court on July 13. Regarding his statements to police to the contrary, Ortega’s lawyer, Marianne S. Rantala, said that it is a “matter of procedure to always plead not guilty.” Rantala declined to comment further, or to allow The Daily Beast to speak with Ortega.

The FBI also declined to comment on its investigation of Ortega during his time in hiding, or on how he came into police custody.

Despite crackdowns nationwide, gangs continue to be a growing problem. A 2011 FBI report found that gang membership in the United States had grown by 40 percent since 2008, to nearly 1.4 million members.

MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is among the fastest growing. At first composed primarily of El Salvadoran immigrants, MS-13 has its roots in Los Angeles, but it metastasized when members were deported to El Salvador as part of their sentences. Today it has no regard for borders: cliques operate in 30 states, from New Jersey to Tennessee, from Utah to the District of Columbia. On Long Island, crackdowns directed at the gang’s leadership may have slowed the bloodshed, but law-enforcement officers say they remain vigilant.

“You can tell it’s increased,” New York State Police investigator Thomas Hughes told The Daily Beast. In Brentwood, a hamlet in Suffolk County, Hughes said you can see “hundreds and hundreds” of young men affiliated with the gang. In the town of Hempstead, in Nassau County, there used to be two cliques, Hughes said. Now there are as many as eight. The gang members who have been indicted and sentenced represent only a small fraction of the total estimated gang population on Long Island, which is as high as 5,000, according to a 2010 report released by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

MS-13 likes the machete because it is heavy and sharp, and merely owning one won’t get you arrested in New York.
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MS-13 likes a machete: Suffolk County police officer inspects a machete found in a car in Brentwood back in 2005. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

Hayes said his agents worked in conjunction with local law enforcement and the FBI to investigate the gang presence in Long Island.

What investigators have found, Hayes said, is that members of the gang who come to the United States from El Salvador tend to gravitate toward established communities of Hispanic immigrants, such as those in Long Island, where they will settle in with a relative. “They prey on their own community,” Hayes said. “They prey on members of their own community who own the stores, who own the convenience stores, they’ll collect money from them.”

But those Hispanic communities are nevertheless close-lipped, and Hughes said that he encountered nothing different when investigating his case. Many of the gang’s members are in their late teens, he said.

“These kids, when you ask them why they’re joining MS-13, they say they’re joining for protection,” Hughes said. But when he points out that it’s their friends joining MS-13 who are getting killed by the gang, they don’t have an answer.

“They’re in their community with other people from El Salvador, but most of the guys we’re talking to, the kids weren’t even born in El Salvador. I would say 70 percent of them were born here, were born and raised on Long Island.”

Deputy Inspector Mathew Lewis of the Suffolk County Police Department was for nine months commanding officer of the centralized gang unit. The gang is a hydra, he said, and Suffolk County has seen fluctuations in gang activity.

“I worked in the third precinct for several years as a sergeant, and I’ve interacted with them,” Lewis said. “A lot of them are very young, and a lot of them are defiant, but then a lot of them are hangers-on. They’re not truly the violent guys.”

The leaders are violent, and in a twist that makes MS-13 particularly difficult to combat, many of the top leaders are in El Salvador, from where they command the gang’s brutal feuds. “There is always the fear the leadership will be replaced” by those in El Salvador, Lewis said. When the members up on Long Island get complacent, the leaders thousands of miles away may threaten to come up and boot them into line.

“That’s why we have to keep them on the run,” Lewis said.

This may be what success looks like in the suburban war against a gang with no scruples, no apparent aims, and little in the way of hierarchy. A Suffolk County task force organized to fight the gang presence on Long Island was broken up in January, and the nearly 40 officers stationed at police headquarters were reassigned to local stations, where they would be closer to the criminals they are working to put behind bars. Yet the gang, the lips of its members sealed by violence, remains largely inscrutable.