Brentwood: living in terror of MS-13 in NY suburbia

BRENTWOOD, United States: The town of Brentwood on New York's Long Island may look like an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. But behind its timber homes and neat front yards, terror lurks.

In this middle-class town 70 kilometers from New York and about the same distance from the glitzy Hamptons summer retreat for Manhattan's millionaires, the Latino street gang MS-13 exerts a brutal grip.

Nearly 70% of the 60,000 residents here are Hispanic, mostly from Central America, and fear of the street gang – born on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s and exported back to El Salvador – runs deep.

"I don't know the gang members, I don't get along with them," says a 15-year-old girl outside the public high school, speaking hurriedly in Spanish and refusing to give her name.

But everyone knows the names Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas – teenage classmates hacked and beaten to death by machetes and baseball bats last September.

Their names and faces remain tacked to a tree just outside the school nearly a year later, staring out of police wanted posters looking for their killers.

Accused of committing 17 savage murders in the last two years, MS-13 is believed to have 400 members in the surrounding Suffolk County on Long Island, with Brentwood and the neighboring suburb of Central Islip the worst-hit.

Open mention of the gang prompts nervous looks, especially among immigrants, many of whom are undocumented.

Like school students, the school administration and Suffolk County police decline to talk to AFP.

One of the few brave enough to speak out is Nisa's father, Robert Mickens.

'My biggest fear'

"I am not afraid," the 40-year-old nursing-home carer says. "I've been through my biggest fear – that was losing my daughter".

His living room, its curtains drawn tight in the afternoon, has been transformed into an altar to his youngest daughter, murdered the day before she turned 16.

She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, targeted simply because she was friends with Kayla, who had fallen afoul of the gang.

He points to a trophy she won in a basketball championship, a poster from her funeral signed by her friends and a picture of Nisa at six years old.

"She was a good girl, a sweet girl, she was hated by no one."

President Donald Trump has declared MS-13 a national security threat, seizing on the fearsome brand to justify his stepped-up deportations of undocumented immigrants, plans to build a border wall and pressure on cities to stop protecting vulnerable migrants.

But police say his administration's anti-immigrant rhetoric has only silenced MS-13's biggest victim, the Hispanic community, which does not dare report crimes.

Gang violence is on the rise, at least partly because of the arrival of unaccompanied migrants fleeing MS-13 in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Suffolk County police chief Timothy Sini recently told lawmakers in Washington.

More than 4,600 unaccompanied Central American children have arrived in Suffolk County since 2014, police say. But Brentwood offers little salvation.

Joseph Kolb, a research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, says the government's decision to place thousands of young people in communities such as this one has caused "a public safety crisis".

'No escape'

"The large majority, if not all of them, come here traumatized and immigration services essentially dumps them," he says. "These are children who grew up in a culture of violence".

Many come to live in Brentwood with a relative they have never met or haven't seen for years, who is often out all day or may even be involved in the gang.

Ruthless recruitment through threats and extortion does not spare children.

"Unfortunately for many of these Central American kids, there is no escape," Kolb says.

"Brentwood school has become overwhelmed," he adds. "I spoke with a school official who says 'We have no idea where to put these kids'".

Law enforcers are stepping up arrests, announcing on Wednesday that 33 alleged gang members had been rounded up in Suffolk County alone.

But critics say they are doing nothing to stamp out MS-13.

Although there are more police patrols on the streets, Nisa's father says, fewer people go out at night or walk their dogs, and fewer young people play baseball or basketball in the parks.

"I know people who have left and I know people that want to leave. One family left because their child was actually killed," says Lenny Tucker, president of the Association of Concerned Citizens of Brentwood.

"They feel that the stigmatism of having gang violence in the neighborhood is bringing the property values of the community down."

The 50-year-old real estate agent is thinking about leaving himself. — AFP