There is a frightening image of the typical MS-13 member that many Long Islanders carry with them — that of a shirtless, muscled, tattooed, sneering adult, likely in his mid- to late-20s. It isn’t an unfounded image. That is what so many members of Mara Salvatrucha look like.
At the elementary, middle school and high school levels, however, it’s more difficult to spot members of the notorious El Salvadoran gang. Yes, you read right. MS-13 members can be as young as elementary age, according to a recent Florida International University study, “The New Face of Street Gangs: The New Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador.” In so many cases, MS-13 members look like regular schoolchildren. But they’re not.
MS-13 isn’t so much a gang as it is an international organized crime organization that targets children and middle-school students, most of Latin-American descent, for membership. According to FIU, 60 percent of members join before they turn 15 and 77 percent before they reach 17.
But if you think the gang entirely comprises youth, think again. More than 40 percent of members are ages 26 to 56 — yes, 56.
FBI and police recently began finding human remains in parks across Nassau County’s South Shore. The victims may have been killed by MS-13, according to officials. The discoveries follow a series of killings in Suffolk County, where MS-13 has established a presence.
Now is the time to act to get ahead of this scourge. We cannot arrest our way out of it. We must halt MS-13’s Long Island recruitment drive before the gang grows into a force too large to control and eradicate.
That is easier said than done. Stopping gang violence has long been a seemingly impossible task. There are ways, however.
The effort must begin with parents, particularly in “high-risk” communities where MS-13 is already established. Talk to your children — yes, your elementary-age children. Let them know about the clear and present danger that MS-13 presents. Let them know — particularly if they are Hispanic — that the gang may come looking for them. Help them understand that the gang may give them a temporary sense of power that they may lack. It may fulfill their need for belonging, particularly if they are newly arrived in the country and suffering from culture shock, and its attendant sense of alienation. But, no matter what, they must stay away from MS-13. They are more likely to end up in a coffin than not — at least eventually.
If parents ignore MS-13, the gang will not go away.
At the same time, school districts must do their part. Keeping kids of all ages active and involved is key to keeping them away from gangs like MS-13. The trouble is, at least some districts, particularly in high-risk areas, are cutting the after-school programs that young people so desperately need. Now, more than ever, kids need art, music and sports so they stay busy and off the streets. Members of MS-13 don’t start out as drug dealers and killers. They begin by committing petty crimes in their local neighborhoods at early ages.
Finally, our police departments must work side by side with community activists to identify gang territories and make sure there is a police presence in them. In recent years, however, Nassau County has cut funding for its Problem Oriented Policing division, whose primary purpose is to build community relations. That makes no sense.
In the end, it takes a community to eradicate a gang as ruthless as MS-13.