The Politics of Estimating the Size of MS-13 on Long Island

Then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini

I have been speaking out against MS-13 since the mid-1990s. The gang has inflicted a lot of pain on the immigrant community here on Long Island. When the upsurge in gang activity began half-a-decade ago, I remember asking police in both Nassau and Suffolk for estimates of the number of people in the gang. The combined total was 700 for Long Island. This included not just full members, but those who were trying to get in and performing illegal acts in furtherance of the gang.

When Donald Trump began to mine MS killings on Long Island for political gain, I was shocked to hear a Federal official say that there were 2,000 MS members in Nassau and Suffolk. The gang had been under severe pressure from local police, the FBI, and ICE. Dozens of members and hangers on had been arrested. How could the gang triple its membership while its members were being arrested in large numbers?

Today’s Newsday offers an answer: Poiticians exaggerated the numbers for political effect. Here is what Newsday’s research shows:

Becoming a full-fledged member of the gang typically involves an initiation period that culminates in a final test — an act of violence. Formal acceptance into the ranks is then marked by a beating at the hands of already-made members.

Steven Dudley, a co-director of InSight Crime, a research initiative funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice, has studied and written about MS-13 on Long Island. Dudley said cliques may have dozens of hangers-on with a core few ready to commit violence in hope of becoming made members.

Others on the periphery, sometimes known as banderas, are errand-runners or lookouts. In the outer ring, Dudley said, are girlfriends, family members and others with little to no involvement in committing crime. While some recruits are eager, Dudley said the gang also uses threats to coerce reluctant young people into service.

Matador targeted not only bona fide members, but also those that authorities labeled gang affiliates or associates.

“Law enforcement will play up the numbers or downplay the numbers based on their need,” said Dudley, who spoke broadly, not in direct reference to any agencies he’s dealt with on Long Island. “The risk can be played up for political advantage.”

Nassau and Suffolk police have strongly defended their numbers.

Cruz said that nationwide law enforcement tends to inflate figures by identifying all who have interacted with MS-13 as gang members, especially if they are young. Complicating the picture, he said, are teens who may pretend to some gang standing to appear tough.

“But they are in no way gang members,” Cruz said. “The gang won’t recognize them as members of the clique.”

Dudley said the gang’s cliques on Long Island typically have between 10 and 15 full-fledged or “beaten-in” members.

News reports and interviews with law enforcement sources indicate there are roughly 11 MS-13 cliques on Long Island. Assuming all are active — unlikely given the recent law enforcement crackdown — and boast a cohort of 15, the actual number of beaten-in MS-13 members on Long Island would be 165.

The Suffolk County Police Department, in written responses to questions, said Dudley’s figures were consistent with “old norms for MS-13.”

“Today, cliques can have 20 or more members, particularly in communities with a large MS-13 population. Communities with smaller MS-13 populations tend to have smaller cliques. MS-13 has even ordered the merger of some smaller and/or less active cliques into broader cliques.”

Assuming all the estimated 11 Long Island cliques have more than 20 members, say 25, that puts the MS-13 population at 275, or 14 percent of the 2,000 figure the DOJ official gave.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in May 2017, the month Matador launched, then Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said there are “approximately 400 MS-13 gang members” in Suffolk “organized in approximately nine cells called cliques.” By Sini’s math, each clique would have had to have about 45 members, far higher than most estimates.

In an interview, now Suffolk District Attorney Sini said his 400 figure was an “approximate number” taken from the police department’s gang database, which includes admitted MS-13 members or those who have met “quite a stringent” confirmation protocol. He waved off figures provided by Dudley and the police department, asking a reporter where he had gotten them, and said that “we have cliques in Suffolk County with over 100 gang members.” Asked to identify such a clique, Sini declined, saying he did not want to release “investigative information.”

In its written responses to Newsday, the police department said it “often confirms MS-13 gang members who do not live in Suffolk County. It is not uncommon for Nassau or Queens-based MS-13, as well as out-of-state MS-13, to come in contact with our officers. In addition, inmates who identify as MS-13 and are in the county’s correctional facility in Riverhead are included in our numbers.”

The department said there are “approximately 400 confirmed MS-13 gang members who have had contact with police during the past several years. In addition, we have another approximately 200 documented MS-13 associates.”

Asked whether using a database that includes MS-13 members from outside Suffolk to produce a tally of gang members described as being “in the county,” as Sini did before the U.S. Senate, could be viewed as misleading, Sini replied: “I don’t think anything I have ever said has ever been misleading.”

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the department uses a rating scale of 1 to 5 to determine membership. Criteria include having a gang tattoo, committing a gang crime and associating with gang members.

“You get arrested and someone says he’s a gang member and you have a gang tattoo, that might give you a point,” Ryder said. “You’re self-admitted, boom, you go right to the top.”

Sini has declined to discuss in detail what criteria officers use to identify gang members — though clearly they don’t involve confirming that a person has been beaten in. A 2016 arrest work sheet that Suffolk police provided to the U.S. Department of Justice lists 10 indicators, including wearing gang colors, flashing gang signs or hanging out with known gang members, and asks officers to “select two or more items.”

“Some of it’s obvious. Some of it’s not,” Sini told The Washington Post in 2018 of identifying gang members. “And this is when activists get nervous. If a kid is wearing white adidas, does that mean he’s a gang member? No, of course not. But the bottom line is that I can look at a pair of sneakers on a kid right now and tell you whether it’s an indicator of gang membership. That’s a fact.”