CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — Federal prosecutors said Thursday they had captured the members of a violent street gang who killed three high school students, including two girls who were inseparable best friends and were attacked with a machete and baseball bats as they walked through their suburban neighbourhood .
Thirteen members of local cliques of the MS-13 street gang were charged with a slew of violent crimes and seven killings over a five-year period, prosecutors and police said.
Among the dead: Brentwood High School students Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, who were ambushed by a carload of other teens on Sept. 13, and their former schoolmate Jose Pena-Hernandez, 18, whose corpse was found on the grounds of an abandoned state psychiatric hospital following his disappearance in June.
The killings came amid a national conversation about illegal immigration, and prosecutors revealed 10 of the 13 indicted people were citizens of El Salvador or Honduras who were in the U.S. illegally, including most of the people directly implicated in the killings.
Last December, Donald Trump referenced the slayings in Brentwood during a profile for his Time magazine Person of the Year award after being elected president.
Two other killings of Brentwood youths, ages 15 and 19, whose bodies were discovered last year in secluded spots in the hamlet, remain unsolved.
Gang violence has been a problem in Brentwood and some surrounding Long Island communities for more than a decade, but Suffolk County police and the FBI began pouring resources into a crackdown after the killings of the high school girls sparked outrage.
"While violence and brutality are trademarks of the MS-13 gang, the murders of these three teens are particularly disturbing," U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said in announcing the indictment Thursday.
Kayla was targeted last summer by a group of four gang members, including two juveniles, because she had been feuding with MS-13 members at school and on social media. The posse, which had been roving in a car looking for gang enemies, attacked it they came across her walking with Nisa in the street.
Nisa "was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging out with her childhood friend," Capers said.
Nisa's father, Robert Mickens, said he felt blessed that police had made arrests.
"I've got some type of closure even though my daughter is not back," he said. "It's closure to my family."
Kayla's mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, said after an initial court appearance for some of the defendants that she was glad authorities had identified her daughter's killers, "but it is also a sad day."
"They'll be judged ... twice," she said of the suspects, who could face the death penalty if convicted.
Pena-Hernandez was a MS-13 gang member who was lured to a wooded area by fellow gang members he thought were his friends, Capers said. Those friends turned on him and repeatedly stabbed him to death, he said.
His death had gone largely publicly unmarked until police began discovering corpses in the weeks after Kayla and Nisa died.
The indictment superseded one filed against five men last year, accusing them of the fatal shootings of two men in Central Islip in 2013, the killing of a man in Brentwood in 2014 and the slaying of a 16-year-old boy in Central Islip in 2015.
The gang, also called Mara Salvatrucha, is believed to have been founded as a neighbourhood street gang in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by immigrants fleeing a civil war in El Salvador. It grew after some members were deported to El Salvador, helping to turn that country into one of the most violent places in the world. It's now a major international criminal enterprise with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many U.S. states.
One of the Republican president's priorities is a crackdown on immigrants who are in the country illegally and have committed crimes. He promised as much in his Time interview, referencing a Newsday story about the killings.
"They come from Central America. They're tougher than any people you've ever met," he said. "They're killing and raping everybody out there. They're illegal. And they are finished."
Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed to this report.
Frank Eltman, The Associated Press