In a marshy section of Cow Meadow Park in Freeport, Long Island, longtime resident Cory Brewer bikes through the thick air and stops to take in the greenery before continuing on to the waterfront.
Trailing nearby, a flock of baby geese, supervised by a parent, crosses a dirt path and plops into the water. A Latino father and his two kids watch the birds swim.
But somewhere across the vast 171-acre park, a reminder of Freeport’s history of deadly gang violence lingers. There, in October, FBI authorities found the remains of a missing teenager, Javier Castillo, believed to be a victim of the violent street gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
In a span of two years, there have been more than two dozen MS-13-linked deaths across Long Island, New York. But as disturbing and alarming as the gang’s gruesome murder methods are to residents, some feel the focusing of the national spotlight on their community is curious, following President Donald Trump’s visit Wednesday, his second gang-related event in Long Island since taking office.
Cory Brewer, who grew up in Freeport, lost several acquaintances to MS-13 murders dating back to 2000.
“Trump gets into office, and now there’s a big whoop-dee-doo about it, when — what I know about this situation — people have been dying from these situations with the MS-13 gang for quite some time,” Brewer said.
A publicity stunt?
Since taking office, Trump has used the machete-wielding criminal network with Salvadoran roots as part of a larger push to crack down on illegal immigration.
During Wednesday’s roundtable discussion in Bethpage, Nassau County, he used a controversial reference for MS-13 gang members for the third time in a week — “These are not people, they’re animals” — to the cheers of attendees and local supporters.
Long Island resident Patricia Dwyer, who had donned a “Women for Trump” T-shirt for a small rally in Bethpage, said she is concerned about her immigrant neighbors, who are most often the targets.
“They come here. They think they’re safe. They’re gonna work through and try to get citizenship or whatever, and they’re terrorizing their own communities,” Dwyer said, “and they’re like, ‘We came all this way to experience the same thing?’ That’s not what America is.”
“We’re Long Islanders, so we’re in this together,” Dwyer added.
But others wonder why more attention isn’t paid to other community safety issues.
“I don’t understand why people are not as concerned when we talk about shootings and other stuff. Is it about race? That’s what I’m feeling now,” said Gabriela Andrade, an Ecuadorian immigrant and community organizer with Make the Road New York in Brentwood, Long Island, a hamlet with a heavily concentrated Salvadoran community.
“Is it because we’re Latinos and we’re brown?” she asked.
One of 33,000 gangs
With an estimated 10,000 gang members across the country, MS-13 accounts for just a fraction of the 1.4 million members of “criminally active” violent gangs, according to FBI statistics, and is one of 33,000 gangs in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Migrants fleeing El Salvador’s 12-year civil war in the 1980s, flocked to Long Island, which by 2012 had grown to 100,000, according to U.S. Census data.
During Wednesday’s roundtable, Nassau County Police Department Commissioner Patrick Ryder said there are about 500 MS-13 members in the county, half of them active.
“In 2017 we had six kids that were murdered in Nassau County by MS-13,” Ryder said. “Of those six, one was shot in the face. One was shot in the back of the head. Four of them were violently butchered by machetes and buried in shallow graves throughout our county,” he said.
“If he (Trump) can do something, God bless him. But I don’t see how anybody is going to stop this,” said Dave Pinero, a lifelong resident of the area. “I know a lot of people from El Salvador, but they’re not MS-13, you know? They’re hard-workers, how do you weed ’em out?”
Separating gang members from immigrants
“To me, it’s a war on immigrants,” Cory Brewer said.
“It’s just another way to use an excuse to invade people’s privacy, so that you can look into them and see if you can basically deport them out of the country in some form or matter,” he said.
Yet, immigrants among the town’s residents welcome the idea of eliminating the gang.
“When immigrants do bad things, I think that each country takes care of that and tries to fix the situation,” said Javier Lechuga, a 26-year resident of Freeport. “I don’t think the U.S. is any exception.”
Originally from Barranquilla, Colombia, Lechuga, who has worked as a waterfront restaurant cook and handyman on Woodcleft Avenue since he arrived in the U.S., feels the MS-13 gang has become less menacing in recent years, to his relief as the father of two, including a 17-year-old son.
But across Long Island, he says any solution to eradicate a violent group without placing targets on law-abiding Latinos — like his own family — is complicated. He looks to his son as an example of the success that comes from hard-working immigrant families.
“My son received honors in school, and one of his certificates has the signature of President Trump,” said Lechuga, holding back tears.
“That makes me very proud, because if they’re talking about my community, I believe my son exceeds the bad reputation sometimes attributed to immigrants.”
Spanish Service reporter Celia Mendoza contributed to this report.