In a largely Spanish-speaking enclave of Long Island, New York, 11 Hispanic high-schoolers were targeted and killed by MS-13 in 2016 and 2017. How did this go on so long? As Hannah Dreier reports at ProPublica, police ambivalence, a lack of empathy, and their inability to speak Spanish resulted in a nightmarish combination that cost 11 young people their lives. “‘When we see a missing Hispanic kid, we tend to assume it’s a gang-involved thing,” said Ken Bombace, who investigated MS-13 murders as a Suffolk County detective before leaving the department three years ago. “The sense is that these kids are killing each other.”’
Miguel was the first of 11 high schoolers to go missing in a single Long Island county in 2016 and 2017, as the street gang MS-13 preyed with increasing brutality on the Latino community. As student after student disappeared, often lured out with the promise of smoking blunts in the woods, their immigrant families were stymied by the inaction and inadequate procedures of the Suffolk County police, according to more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of police reports, court records and documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests.
Many of the families came from countries where officials have historically looked the other way as gangs and death squads disappear young people. Now they felt the same pattern was playing out again, in the woods of Long Island. The officers they asked for help dismissed their children as runaways instead of crime victims, and they repeatedly failed to provide interpreters for witnesses and parents who only spoke Spanish. Their experience points to a larger breakdown between the Police Department and Latino immigrants. Too often, Suffolk detectives acknowledge, police have stereotyped young immigrants as gang members and minimized violence against them as “misdemeanor murder.”
The coroner listed the cause of Miguel’s death as a blow to the head and his place of death as an unidentified road. He had likely been killed the night he went missing, although it was hard to tell because his body had been decomposing so long only his bones remained. Carlota had wanted to bury him in a casket and give him a Catholic funeral. But police returned Miguel’s cremated remains in a small cardboard box. Abraham chose not to translate the forensic report that said the bones were crisscrossed with long machete marks.
When I told Carlota what I’d learned about Jairo, she shook her head and spoke angrily. How could a group of teenagers have committed so many murders, essentially becoming serial killers in the space of a year, when the clues were right there in those messages sent to her son during winter break?
“You get the sense that the police here have this attitude that we Latinos are just killing each other, and this is their country,” she said. “If Miguel was an American, they might have found him right away. If they’d investigated then and there, maybe all these other children wouldn’t have had to die.”