President Trump vows to destroy MS-13, calls members 'animals'

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President Donald Trump came to Long Island Friday to speak about the fight against gangs, especially the violent gang known as MS-13, which federal officials have labeled a "transnational criminal organization" because of its ties to Central America and its reach within immigrant communities.

Members of law enforcement agencies, local lawmakers, and family members of victims of violence attended Trump's speech at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood.

"We love our police, we love our sheriffs, and we love our ICE officers. And they have been working hard," Trump said. "Together, we're going to restore safety to our streets and peace to our communities, and we're going to destroy the vile criminal cartel, MS-13, and many other gangs."

MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, has committed a string of grisly murders on Long Island dating back to January 2016, according to police. Gang members are believed to have murdered two teenage girls in Brentwood in September 2016 and four young men in Central Islip in April 2017.  

The gang is known for carrying out particularly brutal violence with baseball bats, machetes, knives, and guns, authorities have said.

"I was reading—one of these animals was caught and explaining they like to knife [victims] and cut them and let them die slowly because that way it's more painful," Trump said. "And they enjoy watching that much more. These are animals."

ICE has arrested thousands of alleged gang members across the country so far this year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, ICE's parent agency. Trump on Friday called on Congress to fund the hiring of 10,000 more ICE agents to keep up the effort to "eliminate MS-13."

But civil rights lawyers are accusing ICE of detaining some innocent teenage immigrants in the gang sweeps. The NYCLU said authorities unfairly labeled at least nine students from Suffolk County as gang members and sent them to immigration detention centers, the AP reported. The NYCLU said that none of the teens has ever faced gang-related charges.

After the discovery of the bodies of the four victims in April, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Thomas Sini declared "war" on gangs. Later that month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged more state resources to local and federal agencies to help in the fight.

Federal law enforcement officials have said they believe MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s among immigrants who had fled the civil war in El Salvador. But after its leaders were deported, the gang took root in Central America and began to grow.

While Trump visited Long Island, U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in El Salvador to learn more about MS-13 and how its leaders, many of whom are incarcerated, are able control members on the outside. In some parts of the country, gangs control entire towns through extortion, violence, and fear, according to reports. During Sessions' visit, El Salvador's police arrested thousands of gang members.

In written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, ICE officials Derek Benner and Matthew Albence said that MS-13 leadership in El Salvador often "directs and controls" cells, or "cliques," in the United States. 

"Transnational gangs, specifically the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, perpetrate numerous violations within ICE's purview," Benner and Albence testified, "including human smuggling and trafficking, narcotics smuggling and distribution, identity theft and benefit fraud, money laundering, weapons smuggling and arms trafficking, cyber-crimes, kidnapping, extortion, and export violations."

An FBI threat assessment from 2008 said MS-13 engages in murder, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, kidnapping, carjacking, and more.

"Most of these crimes, you'll notice, have one thing in common—they are exceedingly violent," the FBI assessment said. "And while most of the violence is directed toward other MS-13 members or rival street gangs, innocent citizens often get caught in the crossfire."

With Associated Press and WNYW reports.