CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — A member of the violent MS-13 street gang pleaded guilty Thursday for his part in the murders of four people, including two teenage girls who were attacked with a machete and baseball bats as they walked through their suburban Long Island neighborhood seven years ago.
Enrique Portillo, 26, was among several gang members accused of ambushing best friends Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, in retaliation for a dispute among high school students in 2016.
The murders in Brentwood, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of New York City, shook parents and local officials and cast a spotlight on the deepening problem of gang violence in the suburbs.
As president, Donald Trump visited Brentwood and promised an all-out fight against MS-13, saying he would “dismantle, decimate and eradicate” the gang.
Gang violence had been a problem in some Long Island communities for more than a decade, but local police and the FBI began pouring resources into a crackdown after the community outrage sparked by the killings of the high school girls.
Police also began discovering the bodies of other young people — mostly Hispanic — who had vanished months earlier, but whose disappearances had initially gone unmarked by civic leaders and the news media. Some parents of the missing complained that police hadn’t done enough to search for their missing children earlier.
As part of a guilty plea to racketeering, Portillo also admitted to using a baseball bat in a fatal 2016 gang attack on a 34—year-old man and standing watch as gang members shot and killed a 29-year-old man inside a Central Islip deli in 2017.
“As part of his desire to gain status within MS-13, Portillo repeatedly acted with complete disregard for human life, killing four individuals along with multiple other attempts,” Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a news release.
Portillo and other members of an MS-13 faction were driving around Brentwood in search of rival gang members to attack and kill on Sept. 13, 2016, when they spotted Kayla, who had been feuding with gang members at school, walking with Nisa in a residential neighborhood, prosecutors said.
Portillo and the others jumped out of the car and chased and killed both girls with baseball bats and a machete. Nisa’s body was discovered later that night and Kayla’s body was found the next day.
As prosecutors detailed the killings in court, Kayla’ father, Freddy, stood from his seat in the front row and left the courtroom.
Portillo’s attorney, David Stern, read a statement from his client, who admitted his guilt and to being a member of MS-13.
“Being older now, I’m very sorry for my actions,” Portillo, who was 19 at the time, said in the statement.
Portillo faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in January for his role in the killings and in four other attempted murders and arson. He was among several adults and juveniles charged in 2017 in the girls’ deaths and the first publicly revealed to have been convicted. Two adults are still awaiting trial. The cases involving the juveniles are sealed.
A month after Nisa and Kayla’s deaths, Dewann Stacks was beaten and hacked to death on another residential street by Portillo and others who, once again, were driving around Brentwood in search of victims, prosecutors said.
Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla was killed inside a deli the following January by gang members who suspected that the No. 18 football jersey that he was wearing marked him as a member of a rival gang.
MS-13 got its start as a neighborhood street gang in Los Angeles, but grew into a transnational gang based in El Salvador. It has members in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico and thousands of members across the United States with numerous branches, or “cliques,” according to federal authorities.
After Kayla’s death, her mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, worked as an anti-gang activist until her own death in 2018 in a dispute with a neighbor over the placement of a memorial.