Ruthless killers are coming to New Jersey to hide from the long arm of the law, according to an independent state report released this month. But they're not always successful.

The New Jersey Commission of Investigation report on organized crime says the North American street gang MS-13 “remains a persistent threat” but credits local police cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a slew of arrests that have slowed the growth of the gang and its homicide numbers in recent years.

The menace of MS-13 has been used by President Donald Trump to promote his hardline border and immigration policies. He has used official White House communications to refer to the gang's ranks as "violent animals."

Critics of Trump's policies have said the president and his supporters have overblown the threat of MS-13, which has fewer members than other street gangs.

But the commission's report notes that MS-13 is particularly ruthless, employing senseless violence — including using machetes to hack, dismember and sometimes behead rivals or random victims — to instill fear in their communities. The report also notes that the gang is getting better at sneaking into the country and blending in, saying that a “common tactic used by MS-13 members" is to "deny any affiliation with the gang and instead cast themselves as victims.”

The state report was released the same month that the state Attorney General's Office issued new guidelines severely restricting local law enforcement cooperation with civil immigration enforcement by federal agents. The policy was criticized by ICE.

ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence last week said the new directive in New Jersey "undermines public safety and hinders ICE from performing its federally-mandated mission."

“Ultimately, this directive shields certain criminal aliens, creating a state-sanctioned haven for those seeking to evade federal authorities, all at the expense of the safety and security of the very people the NJ Attorney General is charged with protecting.”

But the state policy does not prevent cops from cooperating with ICE or the feds on criminal cases, including MS-13 investigations. Immigration violations are considered civil matters.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said this month that the directive does not provide "sanctuary" to people who commit crimes in the state.

"Let me be crystal clear about this: If you break the law in New Jersey, we will go after you, no matter your immigration status. No one gets a free pass. And we’ll push back against anyone who tries to mischaracterize our new rules by sowing fear and misinformation," Grewal said.

MS-13 graffiti (ICE)
MS-13 graffiti (ICE)

The commission's report tacitly backs the theory behind the new directive, which is aimed at getting residents with unlawful immigration status to trust local police and cooperate with investigations.

“For all of law enforcement’s efforts to hobble MS-13, open communication with immigrant communities remains a persistent problem across much of New Jersey," the report says, explaining that many people are as fearful of deportation as they are of gang retaliation.

In the 2018 fiscal year that ended in September, ICE agents across the country arrested 959 MS-13 members and deported 1,332 members, an increase of 24 percent from the previous year.

The state commission report holds Union City as a model of enforcement because despite a heavy presence of MS-13 members there, the gang conducts hardly any activity in the city. The report says that's a result of "a zero-tolerance approach that involves multiple city departments and the school system.”

The city police engages in community outreach and encourages residents to report gang activity.

In Hudson County, the gang task force conducts periodic sweeps for felons subject to arrest or deportation in known gang areas. The police, however, do not target law-abiding residents, no matter their immigration status. That's a different tactic than what ICE agents have practiced during the Trump administration, arresting anybody suspected of being in the country illegally rather than focusing on violent offenders.

The report suggests police could do a better job tackling the gang if more departments had more Spanish-speaking officers.

ICE agent processes a suspected gangster. (ICE)
ICE agent processes a suspected gangster. (ICE)

MS-13 developed after migrants left El Salvador in the 1980s. They also draw members from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.

The first known MS-13 activities in New Jersey were in Elizabeth in the 1990s. By 2010, the gang had more than 700 members in 67 municipalities.

The most “particularly ruthless” clique is the Plainfield Locos Salvatruchas, the state report says. In 2016, more than a dozen members and the leader of this set were imprisoned on convictions related to five murders and several shootings and machete attacks.

Last year, six members were arrested in Lindenwold, two of whom were wanted in the killing and dismemberment of a man in Maryland. In West New York, authorities arrested two in connection to a quadruple homicide in Long Island. And a gangster wanted for murder in Texas was arrested in Hudson County, where police have found other members with warrants from Virginia and Long Island.

One of the most infamous cases in the state was the slaying of three college-age friends and the rape and assault of a fourth victim on a schoolyard in Newark. The victims were randomly targeted. Six MS-13 members were convicted.

The most vulnerable people, however, are not the general public but immigrants who still have family ties in Central America. The gang hits up merchants for protection fees and charges day laborers for the privilege of standing on street corners where contractors pick them up for jobs.

MS-13 tattoos (ICE)
MS-13 tattoos (ICE)

The state report noted that mass deportations during the 1990s helped slow MS-13 activity in the country, but had the effect of exporting hardened gangsters to countries where weak governments allowed them to flourish criminally. Today, gang leaders imprisoned in El Salvador are still calling the shots in New Jersey and Long Island and gangsters threaten relatives of people living in the United States.

"Despite the absence of recent high-profile violence, it’s clear New Jersey remains a place where gang members seek safe harbor after committing crimes in other states," the report says.

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