Using the site of last week’s mass arrests of notorious MS-13 gang members as a backdrop, President Donald Trump’s visit to the city of Brentwood, New York, underscores the severity of transnational violence that has plagued a heavily Hispanic community. As federal authorities ramp up efforts to eradicate the gang, residents are wary and divided over its intended or unintended consequences.
Long Island, New York, has seen safer days. With 17 reported murders of gang-related violence since January 2016, one afflicted community of mostly Hispanic residents has altered the way it goes about regular activities; among them, high school students like Natalia Osorio, who heeds her parents advice whenever she sees members of the royal-blue-clad gang known as La Mara Salvatrucha — MS-13.
“I walk to school, so they just always tell me to be careful and not talk to anybody,” she says, “Or maybe if somebody comes in a car, they will ask, ‘Oh, you want a ride,’ and you’ll be like ‘No, I don’t want a ride. I’m fine.’”
Across the country, local authorities have seen an ebb and flow in gang-related violence over the past decade, based on geopolitical factors in countries like El Salvador, where MS-13 contributes to its reputation as the world’s murder capital.
Paul Liquorie, director of Maryland’s Montgomery County Special Investigations Division, said areas with heavy concentrations of Central Americans are often easy targets for extortion.
“The gang has worked in those countries. It knows its reputation is going to really have an impact here in those enclaves where you have Central American or El Salvadoran communities. So they’re going to concentrate their efforts because they know that the immigrants here are going to be familiar with their tactics, that they may be more susceptible to their tactics as well,” he says.
Residents across Suffolk County, New York, are largely divided on President Trump’s intentions and motivations in targeting local gang violence. Supporters say federal intervention is overdue.
“The MS-13 gang has been wreaking havoc in Suffolk County, and it’s about time somebody on a national level came in and did something about it, since the local government can’t do anything,” says Mark Bloom a county resident.
But others worry that targeting gang members could be a facade for a more extensive crackdown on the undocumented community.
“I imagine he does intend to deport the bad guys, and that’s good that he targets them, but this will also affect people who have nothing to do with that, because just as there is evil, there is goodness, too,” Kevin tells VOA.
Sergio Argueta, who leads a youth empowerment program on Long Island, was involved in gangs in his youth. He says the death of two close friends and a community college education changed his life, in spite of opportunities and resources denied to him. He says Trump should consider alternative methods to ending violence.
“If he really wants to eradicate or end gang violence as he says he wants to do, what he needs to do is provide good educational opportunities, good health care, good housing, making sure young people aren’t criminalized, but they feel safe and secure in their communities, which is everything that he is not currently doing,” says Sergio Argueta, founder of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth Inc.
Arqueta says ending the cycle of violence begins with both sides of the aisle putting partisan politics aside.