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The Gang Murders in the Suburbs

The bodies were discovered in the woods behind a soccer field in a middle-class suburban town on Long Island. It was the middle of April, during spring break for the local high schools. Three students and a cousin visiting from out of state had been hacked to death by machete, the telltale weapon of the savage MS-13 gang.

They were all young Latino men. And they were the latest victims of La Mara Salvatrucha (as it is known in Spanish), a street gang originally founded in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and active throughout El Salvador, Honduras and cities across the United States.

On Long Island, MS-13 has been around for decades, but it has surfaced with a vengeance in the last 18 months, responsible for 17 murders, the Suffolk County police say. So far, federal officials have charged suspects in only three of the killings, including the murder in September of two teenage girls from Brentwood, N.Y., Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens.

The presence of MS-13 is a frightful reality for immigrant families who escaped the same violence in their home countries, even as the recent deaths have turned into a flash point on illegal immigration. Lost in the debate were the lives of four young men just trying to find their way in America.

The four seemed to have no obvious connection to MS-13; most had gone out of their way to avoid the gang.

Justin Llivicura, 16, was born into an Ecuadorean immigrant family in East Patchogue. He worked at a local restaurant with Jorge Tigre, 18, who had come to the United States from Ecuador at age 10.

Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, had fled gang violence in Honduras three years ago, reuniting with his parents in Brentwood. Michael’s 18-year-old cousin Jefferson Villalobos also escaped Honduras around the same time; he settled with his parents in South Florida. Jefferson was on Long Island visiting Michael and his family for spring vacation, arriving on a Friday. The cousins were dead by the following Wednesday.

Michael’s father, Carlos Lopez, said he hoped the police were close to finding the killers so that his family would finally learn the motivation behind the horror. The police said they had been aggressively rounding up known gang members, making 220 arrests since September.

Meanwhile, it has become clear in pockets of Long Island that even the most casual actions of teenagers — smoking marijuana, wearing the wrong color T-shirt or showing disrespect — can have severe consequences. All because they are within reach of the indiscriminate arm of MS-13.

The Suffolk County police commissioner, Timothy D. Sini, would not discuss specifics of the investigation, but said that for MS-13, violence was both a means and an end.

“When the gang feels slighted, they will use violence to address it,” Mr. Sini said. “When they feel that someone is not following gang rules, they will use violence to address it. Frankly, when they don’t like someone, they will come up with a reason to use violence against them.”

The wave of migration to the United States from Central America hit its peak in 2014, when children made the dangerous trek alone to escape gang violence in their home countries. Michael and Jefferson, cousins who grew up in Santa Rita, a small town in northwestern Honduras, took the journey separately that year.

Jefferson had survived a drive-by gang shooting in Santa Rita. Michael had seen friends die at the hands of the gang there. Their parents, already living and working in the United States, sent for them.

“It was when things were very bad there,” said Jefferson’s father, Francis Villalobos, who has lived in Pompano Beach, Fla., north of Fort Lauderdale, for 19 years. “My mother told me: ‘You’d better take him. The gangs are recruiting. He needs to go so that he doesn’t get into one.’”

When they crossed the border, arriving as unaccompanied minors, they spent about a month in detention centers in Texas before the government released them to their parents. Both cousins applied for asylum.

Jefferson enrolled at Deerfield Beach High School on Florida’s southeast coast. He starred on the school soccer team and played with several club teams, even earning money now and then from teams in need of a talented defender.

Jefferson did not like school, so in his senior year he left to work with his father cleaning windows in Miami.

In April, the family took a trip to Long Island to visit Jefferson’s uncle Jaime Villalobos. Jaime is married to Michael’s aunt and lives on the top floors of a house in Brentwood. Michael and his parents lived on the ground floor.

Michael arrived in Brentwood when he was 17, in April 2014. He had not seen his mother since he was 5; his father, since he was 1. He had never met his youngest brother, Josué, 6.

His parents both worked, his father repairing escalators at Pennsylvania Station, his mother, Lourdes Banegas, as a house cleaner. In the months after Michael arrived, he also found a job, working at a Key Food supermarket in Farmingville. With chubby cheeks and an endearing smile, he was something of a ladies’ man, according to his family, who noted that several former girlfriends traveled to his memorial service. At Key Food, he fell in love with a co-worker named Fabiola.

That fall, Michael entered Brentwood High School, one of 4,624 unaccompanied minors who have enrolled in the Brentwood school district in the past three years, according to the police. The district has 20,000 students.

Michael told his girlfriend’s mother, Irma, that he was uncomfortable with the gang presence in the hallways at school. Wanting to be close to Fabiola and to remove himself from Brentwood, Michael transferred to Sachem High School East, in Farmingville, according to Irma, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. He lived for a time in their home in Farmingville. (They eventually broke up but stayed friends, Irma said.)

Michael would discover that his new school had virtually the opposite ethnic makeup as his old school. Brentwood is 80 percent Latino. At Sachem, more than 80 percent of the student body is white. In the very obvious minority there, the Latino students tended to stick together, Irma said. On Michael’s first day of school, he met a boy named Alex Ruiz, who had recently arrived from El Salvador.

Alex would be with Michael and the other boys on the night they died. According to several people involved, Alex managed to escape from the woods, though attempts to confirm that with Alex, through text message, Facebook and phone, were unsuccessful. Much of the account of what happened that night is based on what Michael’s father and Irma said he told them.

According to Irma, Alex knew gang signs and taught them to Michael. But Michael insisted that he never wanted to join the gang. That was what he was escaping back home, he kept telling her.

It was through Alex that Michael and his cousin Jefferson hooked up that night with Justin Llivicura and Jorge Tigre, two other boys who lived across Suffolk County in the Ecuadorean enclave in Patchogue.

Jorge was the fourth of six children. His father had been deported from the United States to Ecuador because he was convicted of domestic violence against his mother, Bertha Ullaguari.

Ms. Ullaguari worked as a house cleaner, and Jorge frequently helped her. “Sometimes I would ask him to cook or mop or sweep or wash dishes, and he did it all,” she said in a phone interview on the day of her son’s funeral.

Last fall, Jorge posted on his Facebook page that he was named an honor student at Bellport High School. But by the winter, according to teachers at the school, he had stopped going to classes.

His older brother, William Tigre, 21, said in interviews in April that Jorge was not a member of MS-13 but had friends who were. William said then that his brother had tried to get away from MS-13, and his mother said that gang members had slashed the tires of his car in the weeks before the killings. His sister, Monica, maintained that the tires were slashed not because he was avoiding the gang, but because other boys were jealous of his car.

Around the time Jorge stopped going to school, Justin Llivicura did the same. Justin was a sophomore, and his parents said they were concerned about his absences.

“I asked if anyone was threatening him; he said no, no one was threatening him, he just didn’t like school,” his mother, Blanca Zhicay, who immigrated from Ecuador 25 years ago, said in Spanish. “I even went to the school to ask if he had any problems with anyone in school. But they assured me he didn’t.”

Ms. Zhicay said Justin, her only son and oldest child, was devoted to his family. He was an aspiring D.J. who performed for family and friends. Since he did not have a car, Jorge often drove him to D.J. gigs.

Michael and Jefferson spent the day of April 11 working with Michael’s father installing fiberglass insulation. By 8 p.m., Mr. Lopez said, the boys were exhausted from the day’s work and were resting at home. He left for his night job, assuming the cousins would stay in.

But Michael, never one to turn down a social outing, had previously told Irma that he planned to go out on Tuesday with friends. He did not give details.

That same night, Justin asked his mother for permission to go into Manhattan to a party, where he told her there would be celebrities. It would be good for his budding career as a D.J. She said no.

But when Ms. Zhicay checked on Justin in his room around 9:30 that evening, he was gone. One of Justin’s sisters told her that she saw a car pick him up.

Irma would later learn that it was Jorge who picked up Justin, and that Alex was also in the car. They drove 25 minutes west to pick up Michael and Jefferson in Brentwood.

A neighbor saw Michael and Jefferson get into a car around 10 p.m., Mr. Lopez said.

From there, according to Mr. Lopez and Irma, they picked up two girls in Central Islip. The seven squeezed into the small car and ended up at the soccer fields opposite the Central Islip Recreation Village complex. In the tradition of suburban teenagers, they were, according to Irma, going to smoke marijuana in the woods.

Mr. Lopez and Irma said Alex told them what happened next. After a few minutes of sitting in the woods, Michael saw people approaching wearing masks, and he asked Alex if he thought they were members of MS-13. Alex said he was not sure.

The people surrounded them and forced the boys to kneel. Alex managed to flee. What happened to the two girls from Central Islip remains unclear.

Sometime after 11 p.m., Irma got a call, but she was sleeping and didn’t listen to the message until early the next morning. It was from Alex: “Check on Michael.” Jorge’s brother, William, said he also got a phone call from Alex, which translated to: “I see your brother, he is getting killed.”

On the morning of April 12, Michael and Jefferson still had not come home.

Irma spoke with Alex, who told her that he last saw Michael in the woods. She told Michael’s father that, and he related it to Jefferson’s father, who immediately suspected the worst. “They killed them,” Mr. Villalobos said then.

After several frantic phone calls trying to determine where the boys had last been, Irma and the boys’ fathers followed a GPS signal coming from Jefferson’s phone; Jefferson’s mother back in Florida had tracked it through his Facebook page.

When they got to the park, they flagged down a Suffolk County police officer on patrol and told him about the missing boys. They said a cellphone signal led beyond the fields, into the woods. Instead of checking it out, Michael’s father said, the officer told them to submit a missing person’s report.

Michael’s father said they picked up Alex to press him for more information, and after a brief stop at the park, they headed to the Third Precinct station house in Brentwood. Alex refused to enter, Mr. Lopez said.

Carlos Lopez Jr., Michael’s 25-year-old brother, soon pulled into the parking lot of the police station. He encountered Alex there and persuaded him to show him where he had last seen Michael. They went back to the park and then into the woods.

Several minutes later, Carlos Jr. called his father, who was still at the police station. “Dad,” he said, “I found Michael — dead.”

Mr. Lopez said he broke down among the officers at the police station. “That’s when they believed us,” he said, “that’s when they took action.”

Later that morning, a video had surfaced, sent to Justin’s girlfriend; it showed the four lying dead on the ground in the woods. Justin’s mother said that when she first saw the video, she recognized her son from his clothing. The police, she said, would not allow her or her husband to view Justin’s mutilated body.

“We’re in possession of the video, and we know its origins,” was all Commissioner Sini would say.

He would not confirm any details of the parents’ account of the night, saying it would hinder the investigation.

Weeks after the murders, Ms. Zhicay, Justin’s mother, said she was anxious for closure. “Sometimes I think if it had been an American boy, that they would be moving heaven and earth, but since they are Latino boys with Latino parents …” she said, her voice trailing off.

Mr. Sini denied that that was the case. “We will solve the crime,” he said.

Just 16 days after Michael, Jefferson, Jorge and Justin were found dead, Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived in Central Islip to hold a news conference vowing to shut down MS-13. He said gang members had been exploiting the government program for unaccompanied minors, some sneaking into the country undetected to be placed with guardians.

Those who are not already gang members are vulnerable to the strong-arm recruiting efforts of MS-13 in the county, law enforcement agents said.

Schools on Long Island have witnessed a remarkable population change with the influx of these young immigrants. In the past several years, MS-13 seems to have a stronger presence at Bellport High School, where Jorge and Justin attended, said Wayne White, president of the teachers’ association. MS-13 graffiti has showed up in bathrooms and other places hidden from surveillance cameras.

When classes resumed from spring break, Mr. White said, the school held an assembly and observed a moment of silence for Jorge and Justin. But the pause was punctured by some students clapping and high-fiving.

Later that month and early in May, three immigrant teenagers were suspended from Bellport High School for suspicion of gang involvement, but their lawyer, Peter Brill, said they were wrongly accused, according to a report by Newsday. Because of that, he said, one of the boys is detained in Virginia, headed for deportation.

“The fear is that our clients fled South and Central America because their lives had been threatened by actual MS-13 members,” Mr. Brill said in an interview. “And if they are going to be deported for not being MS-13, but perceived as gang members, they will be deported to a country where their lives will be in immediate jeopardy.”

Michael’s father had vaguely been aware of gang activity when he brought his son to Brentwood. But he figured it was isolated and that Michael could avoid it.

Michael’s room, painted the blue of the Honduran flag, has become a shrine. On his bed, his mother laid out his favorite pink sweatshirt, with a design of French fries, a hamburger and a soda on the chest. His soccer cleats and karaoke machine are still in the corner.

In the hallway, under his framed grade-school pictures from Honduras, there is a rough spot of hastily applied plaster. Michael’s older brother had punched a hole in the wall in anguish after finding him dead.

At the memorial service in Miami for Jefferson, he lay in an open coffin. His head bore bracing injuries, obscured only partly by makeup. The socket of his right eye was stuffed with a white cotton ball.

That day, his father ducked into a quiet office to speak briefly of Jefferson. He wore a T-shirt with a picture of his son smiling in the clouds.

As he talked about the senseless cruelty of his son having escaped gang violence in Honduras only to die from it in the United States, he was somber and resigned. “No one,” he said, “is safe anywhere.”

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