Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday unveiled an initiative to combat gang violence at 10 high-risk schools on Long Island on the one-year anniversary of the brutal killing of two high school students by alleged MS-13 gang members.
The unit consists of 10 state troopers who will be sent to the 10 schools — in the school districts of Brentwood, Central Islip, Huntington, Longwood, South Country Central and Wyandanch — that are seen as "ground zero for gang activity and recruitment."
"They are thugs that have to be stamped out," said Cuomo, a Democrat, who traveled to Central Islip Senior High School to make the announcement. "I consider them domestic terrorists. Either they win or we win ... and we are going to win."
In addition to the state troopers, the Gang Violence Prevention Unit will coordinate an "Educate the Educators" partnership between Suffolk County police and school administrators, teachers and other officials so they can counsel students at risk of joining gangs. Officers will inform the educators on "MS-13 identifiers" that include gang recruitment methods.
The initiative also incorporates a gang awareness curriculum that aims to bridge the divide with police and teach students about the risks of joining gangs.
Cuomo called the initiative "just one step in our ongoing efforts to eradicate the threat of MS-13." Earlier this year, the governor added 25 state troopers for increased patrols in Brentwood and Central Islip and added six investigators to the FBI-led Long Island Gang Task Force. The governor's office called it a "blitz attack on the scourge of MS-13."
In recent months, police have increased their visibility in communities hard hit by gang violence, and undercover oeprations have targeted neighborhoods known to have high levels of gang activity.
MS-13 has been blamed for 21 deaths on Long Island in the past 21 months. The killings, many of which have involved teenagers, have caught the attention of both President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom have visited Long Island in recent months to promise federal action to stem the violence.
Cuomo’s announcement comes on the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, who police say were brutally killed with bats and machetes. Federal prosecutors say 16-year-old Kayla was targeted because of ongoing disputes with gang members at her school. They say 15-year-old Nisa was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suspects in their killings were arrested in March.
The bodies of Mickens and Cuevas were found during a terrifying six-week period for the community in which police also discovered the remains of Oscar Acosta, 19, Miguel Garcia-Moran, 15, and 18-year-old Jose Pena-Hernandez. All five were students at Brentwood High School. Acosta and Garcia-Moran had been missing for several months before their bodies were found near Long Island Rail Road tracks Sept. 26.
In April of this year, four young men ages 16 to 20 were found hacked to death with machetes in nearby Central Islip. Two of the men were students at Bellport High. Prosecutors announced charges in those killings in July.
In a visit to Brentwood this summer, Trump promised to use tough enforcement of immigration law to get gang members thrown out of the country.
"They butchered those little girls," the Republican president said of Kayla and Nisa. "They kidnap. They extort. They rape and they rob. [...] They shouldn't be here."
During the visit, Trump called on Congress to ask for 10,000 more ICE officers across the country, up from the current 5,000 who are serving.
Immigrant advocates on Long Island have accused the president of politicizing the MS-13 gang problem to justify a crackdown on all undocumented immigrants.
"The irony is that Donald Trump has decided to use our community as a backdrop for his national agenda -- an agenda built on hate," said anti-gang activist Sergio Argueta.
MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is believed by federal prosecutors to have thousands of members across the U.S., primarily immigrants from Central America. It has a stronghold in Los Angeles, where it emerged in the 1980s as a neighborhood street gang, but also has wreaked violence in cities and suburbs across the United States.
Civil rights lawyers have said some immigrant high school students have been unfairly swept up in the growing hysteria over the gang. At least nine students from Long Island's Suffolk County have been sent to U.S. immigration detention facilities after being falsely labeled as gang members, the New York Civil Liberties Union said in July.