SUFFOLK COUNTY, NEW YORK —
Suffolk County on 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.’”
The threat of MS-13 is why President Donald Trump planned to visit here Friday with the message that lawmakers must do more to combat illegal immigration. While MS-13 originated in Los Angeles, most of its members are from Central America. Before the visit, a White House aide told reporters that the president would deliver a “very forceful message about just how menacing this threat is.”
The president has made MS-13 something of a cause during his campaign and young presidency by connecting it with one of his signature issues: immigration. The White House aide said Trump would highlight “the systemic consequences of our failure to enforce immigration laws over many years.”
But Paul Liquorie, director of Maryland's Montgomery County Special Investigations Division, told VOA that the areas most often targeted by MS-13 gang members are those with heavy concentrations of Central American immigrants – like Suffolk County.
“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.
Divided over Trump Visit
Suffolk County residents were largely divided on President Trump’s intentions and motivations in targeting local gang violence in their community. 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.