FACT CHECK: Are There 2,000 MS-13 Gang Members On Long Island?
John Cronan, the acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice (DOJ), has repeatedly stated that Long Island, New York, is home to 2,000 members of the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
The DOJ says that Cronan mistakenly used a figure that applies to the broader New York and New Jersey region. It issued a correction on its website after The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out, along with a lower estimate for Long Island of 600 to 1,000 MS-13 gang members and associates.
Local law enforcement provided an estimate of 875 gang members.
President Donald Trump recently hosted a roundtable discussion on immigration in which federal and local stakeholders shared efforts they’ve made to combat MS-13.
Cronan spoke at the event, expressing how pervasive the influence of MS-13 has become. “MS-13 is infiltrating our high schools, our middle schools, even our elementary schools,” he said. “MS-13 leaders may operate out of prisons in El Salvador, but the gang is alive and well in our streets.”
He claimed that the gang has 10,000 members in the U.S., with 2,000 operating on Long Island. “And their ranks are continually being refilled with new emissaries from El Salvador,” Cronan said.
The nationwide figure comes from the FBI, which has estimated for years that up to 10,000 MS-13 gang members reside in the U.S. But we couldn’t find an FBI estimate for Long Island matching the 2,000 figure.
TheDCNF contacted the police departments for Nassau and Suffolk – the two counties in Long Island – for another data point. Nassau police told us that 500 members of MS-13 live in the county, 270 of whom are active in the gang. Suffolk County is home to another 375 gang members, for a total presence of 875 MS-13 members on Long Island.
That’s less than half the 2,000 figure claimed by Cronan.
He’s shared the stat on at least two other occasions – once at a White House press briefing and again at a law enforcement roundtable, both on Feb. 6. The White House and media outlets like ABC News and Newsday (a popular site for Long Island news) have repeated it since.
After TheDCNF contacted the DOJ for the source of its figure, a spokesperson acknowledged that an error had been made. The agency, which had posted a transcript of Cronan’s February remarks, updated its website:
“A previous version of this speech estimated the number of MS-13 members on Long Island at 2,000. That number was an estimate of the number of MS-13 members in the New York and New Jersey region,” reads a correction. “The current number range is provided by the FBI’s [National Gang Intelligence Center] and limited to the Long Island area.”
The updated page says that 600 to 1,000 MS-13 gang members and associates reside on Long Island, roughly in line with the figures provided by local law enforcement.
The median age of an MS-13 arrestee is 18, according to Suffolk County police, although the department is aware of associates as young as 10 years old. MS-13 typically recruits in schools by offering protection from rival gangs. Boys who refuse to join are frequently harassed and intimidated.
“They often target individuals who lack the support of close relatives and healthy social networks, using threats and acts of violence to coerce those reluctant to join,” former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said in written testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Law enforcement testified at a congressional hearing last June that the problem on Long Island has been exacerbated by the resettlement of more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors since fiscal year 2015.
Suffolk police did a sampling of 156 active MS-13 gang members and found that 39, or 25 percent, were unaccompanied minors. Both Nassau County and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported similar findings at the hearing.
“What I want to reiterate, like all of our panel members have indicated, not all of these unaccompanied alien children will eventually become gang members,” said ICE agent Angel Melendez. “But the fact of the matter is that as of today, of those individuals, MS-13 members that we have arrested, 30 percent of them – and it is a continual number that we see – are unaccompanied alien children.”
Panel members described a situation in which the federal government had placed unaccompanied minors in communities without notifying local authorities, properly vetting sponsor families or adequately following up after resettlement.
“You are dropping them in homes, you are dropping them in communities that are unfamiliar. They can assimilate into mainstream society, or they can assimilate into an MS–13 or another gang,” said Thomas Krumpter, former Acting Police Commissioner for Nassau County.
MS-13 is only one of the gangs that operate on Long Island. Others include 18th Street, the Bloods, Latin Pride, Salvadorans with Pride and Vatos Locos.
While many gangs engage in criminal enterprises like drug dealing and credit card fraud to earn money, police say that MS-13 members on Long Island generally hold wage-paying jobs. “Rather, MS–13 has engaged in violence for the sake of violence, to increase the notoriety of the gang and to cause the community to fear the gang and its members,” Sini said in written testimony.
The gang will often lure victims into the woods with the promise of drugs or women and then brutally murder them with machetes, bats and chains. MS-13 killed 13 people on Long Island in 2016 and 12 in 2017. (RELATED: How Many Long Islanders Were Killed By MS-13 In The Last Year?)
Law enforcement has cracked down on the violence. Suffolk police have arrested 235 members of MS-13 since September 2016, and the Drug Enforcement Agency took down the alleged northeast leader of MS-13 in January.
But officials warn that if more money isn’t invested in gang intervention programs and after-school activities for youth, gangs will continue to flourish in impoverished communities.
“When one gang is diminished, the others fill the void,” Michael Marino of the Nassau County Police Department said at the hearing.
Follow David on Twitter