Thirty-nine members of MS-13, a brutal gang with roots in Central America, were arrested by the immigration authorities in New York in the past month, officials said on Wednesday.
Many of those arrested were on Long Island in Suffolk County, where the authorities have attributed 17 murders to MS-13 since Jan. 1, 2016. In the most recent, four young men were found dead in Central Islip in April.
The arrests came as part of an effort to eradicate gangs that operate across international borders. Called Operation Matador, it includes agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and affiliated Homeland Security investigators, as well as local law enforcement. In addition to the 39 members of MS-13, six members of other violent gangs, such as the Latin Kings and the Sureños, were arrested, officials said. According to the immigration agency, people are considered confirmed gang members if they admit membership or have tattoos of gang symbols, among other factors.
“These individuals are members of a violent street gang actively wreaking havoc in the community,” Thomas R. Decker, ICE’s New York field office director for enforcement and removal operations, said in a news release about the arrests. “This unified effort is about keeping New York citizens safe.”
Most of those arrested come from El Salvador and Honduras. Five others are from Mexico, and two are from Guatemala, according to the immigration authorities. Twenty had criminal histories, ranging from misdemeanors like disorderly conduct to felony assault and weapons charges.
Twelve had originally crossed into America as unaccompanied minors, according to the release. Three others entered the country via a federal initiative called the Special Immigrant Juvenile program, which is designed to help abused or neglected children find safe haven in the United States.
MS-13, also known as La Mara Salvatrucha, was started in the 1980s in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador but has grown into a transnational organization.
After the four bodies were found in Central Islip, the problem emerged as a federal priority, attracting the attention of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He visited Long Island in April and spoke with local law enforcement officials, vowing to eradicate the gang by cracking down on illegal immigration.
“There are times when we know someone is an MS-13 gang member, and we know someone is an active MS-13 gang member, but we’re not in a position to make a criminal arrest,” Timothy Sini, the Suffolk County police commissioner, said in an interview. “So another tool in our toolbox is to work with the Department of Homeland Security to target active known MS-13 gang members for violation of civil immigration laws, which is another way to remove dangerous individuals from our streets.”
The arrested men face a variety of consequences. Some had re-entered the country after having been deported once, which is a federal crime, and will face prosecution. Deportation proceedings will begin for some of those not facing criminal charges.
Jorge Tigre, 18, was one of the young men found dead in April, murdered in a manner “consistent with the modus operandi of MS-13,” Mr. Sini said at the time.
Mr. Tigre’s brother William Tigre, originally from Ecuador, said on Wednesday that the arrests would not make a difference. “My brother’s not here anymore,” he said. “If they catch them, you know, that’s not going to solve the problem.”
There are just too many MS-13 members, Mr. Tigre said.
“Nothing’s going to change,” he said.