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How a New York Sheriff is Driving Down MS-13’s Gang Presence in Suffolk County

Isabel Vincent
The New York Post

Five years after Donald Trump vowed to end the brutal reign of MS-13 on Long Island, NY, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. is doing just that. But it’s also, apparently, pushing one of the country’s most violent gangs deeper into a borough of New York City.

Toulon, the first African American elected to the post, is widely credited with stalling the growth of the gang, which for years had a stronghold in the region.

“Information sharing is what’s really helping us to drive down MS-13,” Toulon told The Post.

Exchanging data on jailed gang members in the Yaphank and Riverhead correctional facilities with local police departments and prosecutors has led to the arrests of dozens of the machete-wielding thugs since he took office in 2018, Toulon said.

And he’s continued to allow federal agents of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have offices in county jails, a controversial practice set up by his predecessor, Vincent DeMarco, in 2016.

Toulon, now in his second term, was a Democratic candidate for sheriff in 2017 when Trump railed against the blood-thirsty gang in a speech at Suffolk Community College in July 2017.
And Toulon took those words to heart.

“We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you and we will deport you,” the former president said, just three months after MS-13 goons savagely massacred four high-school friends in Central Islip.

The victims— Justin Llivicura, 16, Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, Jorge Tigre, 18, and Jefferson Villalobos, 18 — were not involved with MS-13 but pretended to be, flashing the gang’s signs in social media photos to attract women.
They were allegedly lured to their deaths by Leniz Escober, a 17-year-old known as “Diablita” (the Little Devil) who sought to curry favor with the gang and had tipped them off to what the friends were doing, prosecutors charge.

She’s now on trial for murder.

“One of the ways this case was broken was the monitoring of Escobar’s phone calls with her boyfriend, who was on the inside,” Toulon told The Post, noting that Escobar’s boyfriend was an MS-13 gang member in a Suffolk County jail.
“We are constantly monitoring data, interviewing inmates and sharing that data with our law enforcement partners.”

He said working with ICE and focusing on gathering intel has resulted in more MS-13 inmates in Suffolk County jails.

“When I started, MS-13 was the No. 4 leading gang in our facilities,” he said. “Now it’s No. 2,” with 23 members being held.
But Toulon’s decision to partner with ICE angered some Democrats and civil liberty advocates, who were concerned he would go back to demanding that federal immigration agents obtain warrants — a time-consuming task — if they wanted to detain an inmate set to be released by the county.

“The assumption was that Errol was going to end the detainer requests, and require ICE to go through the lengthy process of getting a warrant,” said Curtis Sliwa, a gang expert and Republican who ran for New York City mayor last year. “He said, ‘ICE is going to be in my jails so they can deal with MS-13 directly.’ That sent shockwaves throughout Long Island.”

The result is that many MS-13 members have moved out of Suffolk County and into Queens, Sliwa told The Post.
He said that when the NYPD tried to adopt the same measures and reached out to ICE in Queens, they were “immediately chastised.” Mayor Adams has “ordered all the local city agencies to have no involvement with ICE at all, which is too bad because ICE has the resources to track the gangs,” Sliwa said.

Toulon said he works closely with Suffolk County’s Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, a former NYPD deputy chief and commanding officer of the department’s Intelligence Bureau who joined Toulon’s staff in August 2018.

“For a long time in Suffolk County MS-13 operated with impunity,” Catalina, 54, told The Post. “After Trump and others put a spotlight on the issue, law enforcement hasn’t let up.”
Shortly after taking over as sheriff, Toulon traveled to El Salvador to consult with law enforcement on the gang, which started in Los Angeles in the 1970s among Salvadoran migrants and now has cells throughout the US. It was, he said, an eye-opening trip.

“I really got a better understanding,” he explained.

Toulon was shocked to learn that 78 Salvadoran cops had been killed in the first four months of 2018 by MS-13. He also learned that gang members practice torture in order to send a message to their rivals to stay off their turf.

“What we were able to do was establish a good relationship with them,” Toulon said, “and confer with them about what we were finding in Suffolk County.”
He had plans to travel to other Central American countries to forge similar alliances, but the COVID pandemic prevented him from leaving the country. He is now re-scheduling those trips.

Toulon’s overall goal is to build a countrywide network for sharing intelligence on jailed MS-13 members, which would allow him and Catalina to track gang connections between Suffolk County, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

For Toulon, it’s all part of the promise he made to his constituents when he first ran for office in 2017: “We won’t back down when it comes to keeping this community safe.”