After surveilling the activities of a local cell of the international MS-13 gang for a year, the Port Washington Police Department (PWPD) Detective Unit arrested eight young Hispanic males for allegedly trying to coerce another young Hispanic into joining their gang. The young man had been threatened since November 1997 but was too afraid to press charges. When he finally agreed to do so in early February, the police had enough evidence to make an arrest sweep. In return for his cooperation, the PWPD has offered the youth and his family full police protection.
News of the arrest was announced by Chief of Police William J. Kilfoil at a press conference at police headquarters on Friday, Feb. 27. For the rest of the weekend stories of the event were carried on various TV channels and printed in Newsday. On Sunday, March 1, additional news about the gang broke after a Hempstead cell of MS-13 shot a man at a 7-Eleven store.
At the press conference, Chief Kilfoil read a prepared statement and then fielded questions with the assistance of Police Commissioners Bob Persons and Roy Smitheimer, Commission Chairman James Duncan, PWPD attorney Stephen Ressa, and Lieutenant Ronald DeMeo, commanding officer of the Detective Unit that supervised both the surveillance and the arrests.
Chief Kilfoil said that violence associated with gang membership has escalated over the past 20 years and that the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS or MS-13, is one of the more violent gangs. "MS" stands for "Mara Salvatrucha," which directly translates to "Forever Salvador" or more loosely, "Long live El Salvador." The MS was started by a group of rebels hoping to overthrow El Salvador's government during the country's civil war. The meaning of "13" is still not definitively known by the PWPD, however.
Kilfoil explained that the MS-13 gang is now international in scope and has member cells in parts of the United States as far reaching as Kodiak, Alaska and Los Angeles, California. The group has also grown in the New York metropolitan area. According to one printed source, police estimate that several hundred members are in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Kilfoil said, "The gang is notorious (nationally) for its criminal activity and its members continue to be responsible for many vicious acts of violence, including murder, attempted murder, felonious assault, robbery, coercion, and witness intimidation." So far in Port Washington, however, known MS-13 crimes have been limited to robbery, burglary, and criminal trespassing. Three of the young men arrested had previous records. This will be the first official coercion MS-13 case.
Kilfoil said that the PWPD first learned that an MS-13 gang had been formed in Port Washington, in early 1997. Surveillance indicates that Port has approximately 30 male Hispanic members, primarily of Salvadoran descent. Women are not allowed to become members.
One of the Port gang's primary activities has been to recruit new members, primarily in their late teens. Members are expected to do whatever the gang tells them to do, including committing crimes. Every new member must undergo an initiation rite which involves being tortured by every member. Immigrants from El Salvador are primary targets, but first or second generation immigrants from other Central American nations are also sought. Five of the arrested adults were from El Salvador; the other two were from Guatemala. Some of the arrested men's parents either are or were members also, Lieutenant DeMeo said. Some of the parents expressed pride when told their children had been arrested.
To declare their identity with the group, members tattoo their bodies with logos of "MS-13" and with pictures of the sad and happy drama masks. One member usually tattoos all the others.
To mark their territory, gang members spread graffiti with their "MS-13" tag in the area they expect to control. According to Commissioner Roy Smitheimer, who serves on the Nassau County Anti-Graffiti Task Force, graffiti informs other gangs to stay away or risk war. The appearance of graffiti has therefore helped the task force to map out the location and spread of various gangs. They report that "MS-13" is expanding in Suffolk and Nassau Counties. To prevent a gang from taking control of a community, Smitheimer says it is very important to remove graffiti within 24-48 hours. "MS-13" graffiti found in various places in town, including on the outside wall of Carnel's stationery store and on a bench near the Schreiber baseball field, have therefore been painted over several times.
The gang also tried to establish territorial rights in Port Washington by having a member pose with an MS-13 hand signal (unnoticed by the photographer) in a photo that was submitted to this newspaper. Chief Kilfoil said that he did not know if MS-13 was also the gang that was rumored to be planning to invade Port Washington by water last Halloween. Whether they really planned to or not, no one knows. The PWPD had 22 extra officers on the streets that night, and no trouble was visible anywhere.
This coercion case opened in November of 1997 when MS-13 gang members began threatening and harassing a young man of Salvadoran descent. Kilfoil reported that "by words, intimidating hand signals and threats of serious bodily harm, the young man was made to feel that if he did not join the MS-13 gang, he would suffer serious bodily injury. He was told that as part of his initiation, he would be beaten by every member of the gang. As a member he would be required to attend every meeting. Unexcused absence would result in further beatings." The victim was constantly afraid of being accosted but was also afraid of pressing formal charges against the gang members for fear of retribution. Teachers at Schreiber were alerted, however, and police kept a close watch on known members of the gang. Finally, in early February the victim decided the situation was intolerable, and he requested arrests.
According to Lieutenant DeMeo, the PWPD Detective Unit, led by himself and Detective DelMuro, then started tracking each gang member who had threatened the youth. On Monday, Feb. 23, when the exact whereabouts of eight of the nine gang members was known, PWPD detectives closed in to make the mass arrest. The arresting unit included DeMeo, DelMuro, a detective sergeant, five uniformed detectives and two plainclothesmen.
At 6:31 p.m. they arrested a 16-year-old at Main Street and Madison; at 6:51 p.m. they arrested a 19-year-old on Main Street; at 7:29 p.m. they arrested an 18-year old on Corchaug Avenue; at 7:31 p.m. they arrested one of two 20-year-old brothers (not twins) on lower Main Street; then at 9:45 p.m. they arrested a 17-year-old and the younger 20-year-old brother at an apartment on lower Main Street that had been used by the gang for meetings. Earlier, at 4:30 p.m. they arrested a 16-year-old at a detention home in Syosset where he was on probation for a previous crime. The arrest details of the 15-year-old juvenile gang member were not disclosed. A ninth member was scheduled to be arrested later.
All suspects lived in Port, except for the one arrested in Syosset. Three attended and/or graduated from Schreiber; one attended the Flower Hill Alternative School; one was schooled by St. Mary's Children and Family Services; and two last attended school in El Salvador. Two worked for local restaurants and one worked for a local supermarket. One had two known parents who lived together.
All eight young men were handcuffed and taken to Port police headquarters where they were charged with coercion first degree, a class D felony. Then the eight adult suspects were taken to Nassau County Detention. The juvenile was taken to the Nassau County Juvenile Detention Center. The adults were arraigned the next day. Bail for three of the suspects was set at $2,500 cash or a $50,000 bond; for the others bail was set at $500 cash or a $10,000 bond.
When asked what the likely sentence for these gang members might be, Lieutenant DeMeo said that felony D crimes are punishable by a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years. Their sentences could be reduced by plea bargaining, however. It's even possible that they wouldn't be incarcerated at all. The trial date has not been set yet; DeMeo said the seven adults will probably be tried together.
When asked what was being done to protect the informant, Chief Kilfoil said he could not disclose details. Lt. DeMeo did, however, explain later that the youth has an order of protection from each of the defendants. This means that the suspects can't even look at the complainant without being arrested.
When asked if the police were also watching other gangs in Port Washington, Chief Kilfoil said that the PWPD had no knowledge of any other active gangs in Port at this time.
In closing, Chief Kilfoil thanked Assistant District Attorney Tammy Robbins from Denis Dillon's Nassau County D.A. office, teachers and staff of the Port Washington school system, and the people in the PWPD Detective Unit for their invaluable help in making this arrest possible.
Chief Kilfoil and Commission Chairman James Duncan both emphasized that the purpose of the press conference was to let people know that Port Washington would not tolerate illegal gang activity in this community.
Chief Kilfoil and the rest of the police representatives, also emphasized that even though the MS-13 gang is comprised of El Salvadoran immigrants and other Hispanics, the majority of El Salvadoran and Hispanic immigrants living in Port are not connected to MS-13 or any illegal activities. Also expressed was that most of them are trying to earn honest livings and make better lives for themselves and that this gang should not tarnish their reputations.
Lieutenant DeMeo said after the press conference that he hoped the publicity of these arrests would encourage other young Hispanics to seek police help if they're being harassed. Many come from countries where they are afraid of the police. "We want them to know the police are here to help them."
Commissioner Bob Persons said that despite the venerable work of the PWPD, the real hero in this gang bust operation was the young man who had the courage to come forward to testify against MS-13 members even though he had to endanger the safety of his family and himself to do so.