Before dawn on a balmy December day, about half a dozen Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swarmed in front of a ranch house on a quiet block in Brentwood, Long Island, and knocked on the door of José Rubio.
Rubio, 31, is suspected to be one of more than 2,000 members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, slang for “street-smart Salvadorans,” on Long Island. The FBI has charged 12 members of the gang with nine homicides there since 2008.
Minutes later, ICE agents led Rubio, a stocky man with a goatee and black curly hair, away in handcuffs. His wife, Melissa, watched in silence from their lawn, tears streaming down her face.
The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang, began establishing a strong presence on Long Island more than 15 years ago. There, like across the country, it committed violent crimes that have caused some to label it as the country’s most violent gang.
But according to Suffolk and Nassau County police departments, their focus on the gang coupled with efforts by the FBI and ICE, has brought the violence down this year.
(Photo: ICE Agents Arrest José Rubio. Mirela Iverac/WNYC)
Starting Off Small, Ending Up Infamous
Mara Salvatrucha started off as a small street gang in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Since then it has spread across at least 42 states and Central America. The gang is notorious for brutal slayings of rival gang members and its own suspected of working with the law enforcement.
On Long Island, a large Salvadoran community attracted new immigrants — in the mid 1990s some started organizing into the MS-13 gang; others came already having been members of the gang in other places.
Today, the gang has more than 20 cliques, and some of the strongest ones are in Hempstead, Freeport, Brentwood and Central Islip, according to the FBI.
Over the years MS-13 captured headlines with brutal murders, such as the stabbing of 15-year-old Michael Alguera at a Hempstead High School handball court in 2008, or last year’s shooting of 19-year-old Vanessa Argueta and her 2-year-old son Diego in Central Islip.
Long Island’s “Baddest Gang”
Special Agent Reynaldo Tariche, from the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force, said that what makes MS-13 one of the most dangerous gangs are crimes that have no specific purpose.
“It’s not profit seeking,” Tariche said. “It’s pure violence to establish themselves as the baddest gang in Long Island.”
But police say violence caused by MS-13 on Long Island is down. Work done by federal and local authorities has resulted in homicide, racketeering, drug and extortion charges against nearly 50 MS-13 members and associates since 2008.
It is a product of investigations, which tend to be long and arduous, often because witnesses are unwilling or too afraid to cooperate. Results, however, have shown what Detective Sergeant Mike Marino, head of the Nassau County Police Department’s gang section, describes as “taking out the significant portions of the MS-13 gang, leadership and members.”
He cites the three-year long investigation into the death of Michael Alguera, the high school student, which resulted in murder charges against Louis Ruiz and David Valle, members of Hempstead MS-13 clique, this November.
This year, more than 20 MS-13 members were sentenced or charged using Racketeer and Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO, in the Eastern District of New York federal court.
RICO was originally passed in the 1970s to deal with the Mafia, but as street gangs took center-criminal stage federal prosecutors have used it more commonly to target them, particularly since the 1990s. It allows them to charge individuals for being members of a group or “enterprise” that commits crime, with the possibility of obtaining lengthier jail sentences.
(Photo: James Hayes, ICE's Special Agent in Charge of Investigations. Mirela Iverac/WNYC)
Feds Target Transnational Gangs
While local police and the FBI have been zeroing in on MS-13 and other transnational gangs on Long Island for years, ICE started targeting them to a greater degree after James Hayes took over the position of special agent in charge of investigations in 2009.
“I thought there were a lot of threats associated with criminal gang activity, transnational gang activity in the New York area,” Hayes said. “And we went from a total of 27 arrests in 2009 to 310 in fiscal year 2011 that just ended.”
Those arrests, as well as that of José Rubio, which will show up in the stats this year, are a part of ICE’s national gang enforcement initiative known as Operation Community Shield. It began in 2005 specifically targeting MS-13, whose many members are not citizens. (It has since expanded to more than 2,000 gangs and cliques.)
Rubio, although having committed crimes much smaller than those that have made the MS-13 gang so infamous, is worthy of ICE’s attention, according to Hayes.
“When we’re looking at who should we target, we’re looking at people who committed crimes in the past … and are members of all criminal organizations, in particular transnational gangs,” he said.
In 2007, Rubio was convicted of possession of a forged instrument and disorderly conduct. Eight years earlier he came into the country illegally from El Salvador.
A few days after his arrest, though, Rubio strongly denied any affiliation to MS-13 in an interview in one of ICE’s facilities in downtown Manhattan.
“I’m not a member of MS-13,” he said, sitting in a small room, handcuffed and wearing a lime-green jumpsuit. “I don’t deny it. I have family members who are in the gang.”
Rubio said all he was interested in was being reunited with his wife, Melissa, a U.S. citizen, and their two children, who are 3 and 2.
He is currently in Hudson County Correctional Facility, waiting to appear before an immigration judge, who will decide whether he will be deported back to El Salvador.
(Photo: José Rubio in jail. Mirela Iverac/WNYC)
“Unintended consequences” of Deportations
Some experts point out that deportations often are not an end to the problem of transnational gangs.
“The unintended consequence is you spread a gang that initially is heavily focused in parts of Los Angeles,” said John P. Sullivan, senior research fellow with the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism. “It now gets to spread its tentacles to other places. And those new cliques or cells start to replicate.”
Additionally, deportations don’t prevent gang members from crossing the border again — around 20 percent return, according to ICE.
Sgt. Marino of the Nassau Police Department also strikes a cautionary note when talking about success in dealing with MS-13.
“It is cyclical,” Marino said. “Once we deal with one group, they’re out of commission for a while. They seem to come back over time.”