This visual investigation was presented as my Master’s Project at Columbia Journalism School in 2017. Tutored by Nina Berman, it received Honorary Mention and excerpts were published by The Intercept in 2018.
Part 1: Burying your child
It was September 13, 2016, and the summer sun had already set in Brentwood, Long Island. Rob Mickens dropped her daughter off at her best friend’s house. Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, went outside later that evening but, when Rob came to pick her daughter up, they were both gone.
“We started looking. Immediately,” he said in an initial statement to the press.
They couldn’t find them that night.
What happened to Nisa and Kayla that night would change the life of almost every person in Brentwood.
Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) got a call in the first hours of that morning. There was a body lying in front of an Elementary School.
It was Nisa.
A day after, Kayla followed. The community was in shock, unraveling a series of events that would expose Long Island’s struggle with gang violence. It would also put a huge community of immigrants and asylum seekers on the spotlight, turning Brentwood into a battleground for immigration laws.
Less than a week after, two other bodies were found in a deserted wooded area. First it was Oscar Acosta, a 19 year-old, from El Salvador. His remains were found on September 16th, near the Long Island Railroad tracks. Five days later, the remains of Miguel García Moran, 16, were found close by. Carlos’ mother was hospitalized after she heard the news.
Both of them had been reported missing months before and advocates publicly said that authorities overlooked the disappearance of Hispanic teenagers. Kenny Reyes, an 18 year-old Honduran national, never came back after he left his house in East Meadow on May, 2016. “It’s almost been a year. Whatever happened to my son, we just want to know. The police left his case to the side, as if my son didn’t matter,” said his father, Juan Reyes. He hasn’t been found to date and it’s the only open case of a missing teenager that has the local police on guard, according to official sources.
The death count was up to four by then, and the community was in absolute despair.
“I’m frightened for my kids. Every day I’m frightened for them. They’re not safe here,” said a parent in a School Board Meeting at Brentwood High School last year. But the problem was just beginning.
Then came October.
Two additional bodies were found. First it was Dewann Stacks, a U.S.-born, 32 year- old. He was found by a passer-by, beaten to death on a sidewalk. Then Jose Peña Hernandez, an 18 year-old of Hispanic origin. His remains were found near the abandoned facilities of Pilgrims Psychiatric Hospital. The killers used machetes in most of the attacks, including Nisa and Kayla’s. Now the count was up to six.
The Suffolk County Police Department suspected that all the murders had one thing in common: the MS-13. In several press conferences, Suffolk County Police Commissioner, Timothy Sini, pinned the murders on the gang, formed in the 80s in Los Angeles and composed mostly by Central Americans.
A local problem had spread all over national news, making it as far as El Salvador itself. And what had been a historically segregated community, turned all eyes on immigrants. On December, in an interview with Time Magazine, Donald Trump pulled a Newsday headline that referred to Long Island’s struggle with gang violence. He said, "They come from Central America. They're tougher than any people you've ever met," and added "They're killing and raping everybody out there. They're illegal."
“What they did to my sister is barbaric. They took someone that they shouldn’t have. That one side of the universe that shined brighter than any of them,” Andres Mickens, Nisa’s brother, added.
Words had echoed in a mourning community and this terrified the immigrant population. “They are being profiled and targeted by everyone now,” said Javier Guzman, a community organizer from Make The Road, a New York-based immigrant advocacy group.
Part 2: The ones who don’t belong
Brentwood is a small community of about 60,000 inhabitants. It is also the seventh city with the largest Salvadoran community in the U.S. according to City-Data.com. In Brentwood, nearly 50% of the population is foreign-born. This characteristic made the fear of immigrants a well suited speech for Donald Trump during his campaign.
Suffolk County received 3,709 resettlements of unaccompanied minors (UAC) during the crisis, between 2014 and 2016, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This figure makes the Long Island county the third highest placement site of UACs by ORR. The Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant think-tank, argues that the city and its institutions were not prepared for this flow of migration. In their publications covering the issue of migration and violence, they adjudicate the violence to the new migrants.
But one thing is true: regardless of the immigration flow, Suffolk County’s crime index has been steadily dropping for the past three years, according to the last report published by New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice.
And it goes even further. Just two months ago, Timothy Sini, the Police Commissioner, said that 2016 had the lowest levels of crime ever recorded in the history of the department.
As migration and gentrification pushed, Long Island found some batches in the way. According to Erase Racism, a non-profit based in Syosset, Long Island is the third most racially segregated suburban region in America. Segregation affects all dynamics, from inequality to education and, in Long Island, glaring poverty neighbors astounding wealth. This also put a lot of pressure on the social and political institutions to keep the Island’s image within the range of picket-fenced dreams.
“Nobody wants to say ‘we have a gang problem’, it’s scary. Maybe the county was trying to hide the problem but when you have two 17-year-old girls dead... there’s
just not enough makeup to put on that,” said John Oliva, a retired member of Long Island’s Gang Task Force, a joint-venture unit between the FBI, and local law enforcement agencies from Nassau and Suffolk counties. As he recalls, the problem has been there since 1997.
This is type of suburban town where Nisa and Kayla grew up. It was the place where Oscar, Miguel and Jose were resettled, but newcomers like them met a hostile reception and the violence that they fled from, would hunt them thousands of miles away.
No one had been charged with the murders, so the question was glaring within the community, “Why would anyone want to do that to my baby? I just want to know why,” said Elizabeth Alvarado, Nisa’s mother.
Part 3: Beyond a cosmetic problem
Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla’s mother, was battling with Brentwood High School because her daughter was being harassed. “I fought this Board for two years and all I got was my Kayla killed,” she said in a Board Meeting last year. Her voice trembled and the whole room was dead silent.
Kayla waited for five months to meet with a social worker at school, but the meeting never happened. Two social workers were contacted but never returned the calls. Last year’s school budget placed the funds in hiring a PR Relations Specialist, but no funds were addressed to enhance gang prevision counseling.
“Did we need a PR Relations Specialist? Why? So that we could appear good on the outside while we were crashing down?” Mrs Rodriguez said in the meeting while
other parents booed at the Board. Brentwood High School does not use metal detectors and, when teenagers are suspected of gang involvement, they’re usually suspended for some days.
Kids in Brentwood experience violence on daily basis. “It’s the most dangerous school around,” said Abel Batres, a young Salvadoran immigrant and a former student at Brentwood High School.
“I forgot what evil was like until I went to that school”, Abel recalled.
Gangs have a tradition of recruiting vulnerable youth from a young age and they have been doing precisely that in Brentwood High School. “Everyone there is in some gang. They gain money and respect,” Abel said, as he walked through the dark streets of Brentwood. “They’ve asked me to recruit, but I didn’t come all the way here to do that,” he added.
“Some of these kids are forced into shootings. They say ‘Well, if you don’t join, I’ll kill you or your family down in El Salvador’. This is a huge problem for law enforcement,” said Sergeant Kevin Krause, who is part of the Long Island Gang Task Force. They know about cases of MS-13 members as young as 12 years old. “Sometimes I feel bad for them. But, this is my job,” Krause added.
“How do we talk about PTSD with kids and adults that come from the inner city neighborhoods that are being exposed to high chronic violence? There’s no such thing as ‘post’. They experience this every single day. When they’re in school, at home, at the park...,” said Eddie Bocanegra, Executive Director of the YMCA of Metro Chicago's Youth Safety.
Brentwood High School started considering restorative programs that address youth violence only after Nisa’s and Kayla’s death.
This left a huge burden on law enforcement. On March 8th, 2017, Timothy Sini, the SCPD Commissioner, announced the arrest of 142 people under the suspicion of MS-13 involvement. Lawyers specialized in juvenile detention are concerned that the high number of arrests might lead to wrongful convictions and further stigmatize an already discriminated minority.
Sini also announced his support for a legislation that would prohibit the sale of machetes to minors in New York State. “There’s no reason why a child should ever have this. It’s that simple,” he said, as he held a 3-foot long machete that was confiscated as discovery for Nisa and Kayla’s murder investigation.
Kayla had gotten in an argument in school months before her death. Some students said that she defied a gang member by tearing his rosary apart. The D.A’s office confirmed that she had an altercation with them, “(Kayla) Cuevas and several friends were involved in an altercation with MS-13 members at Brentwood High School. After that incident, the MS-13 members vowed to seek revenge against Cuevas,” read the press release.
Nisa wasn’t involved in the argument, she was just in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Part 4: The long wait for light
Madeline Diaz is a 17-year old girl and was one of Nisa’s closest friends. She is the daughter of a Salvadoran father. After Nisa was killed, Madeline is hardly ever allowed to go out. She can’t stay at friends houses, can’t go out after dark, can’t party or do most of the things that kids her age do.
Nisa and Madeline were both good students who cared about their future. Madeline wants to be a physician, Nisa wanted to be a veterinarian. Madeline’s grades have not been as good since her friend’s death. “I’ll never say it’s because of her, that wouldn’t be fair,” she said once.
Most people of her age don’t have to overcome loss and fear on an everyday base. Madeline is now struggling with her own fears and dreams. Her parents are desperate to keep her safe and it often competes with her own willingness to be a regular teenager. There is some type of ingenuity, typical of those years, that is contrasted by the violence that surrounds her. “Don’t ask, Madeline. Stay young and innocent,” she was told once when she asked about teenage pregnancy.
On March 2, 2017, Robert L. Capers – the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York – announced an indictment against thirteen alleged MS-13 members on 41 charges ranging from racketeering to seven murders, including Jose, Nisa and Kayla’s. The other three cases were not mentioned in the file and remain unsolved. The defendants face life in prison or the death penalty.
Ex-SCPD John Oliva remembered from his time in the field, “Nobody wins in these situations. Everyone just loses. These kids... They have no idea of what they’re getting into and, suddenly, you’re 17 and spending the rest of your life in jail. What does that leave for them?”
Most of the suspects weren’t over 21 years of age and ten out of the thirteen are believed to be in the country without legal permission. This has pushed the immigrant battle further up the ladder.
“I couldn’t get myself to cry... I’ve cried so much,” said Elizabeth Alvarado, Nisa’s mother, after she heard the news. Her look was pungent. “I heard one of them was crying in court. What right does he have to cry? Because he got caught? He has no right to cry, he killed my baby,” she added. Elizabeth hopes that they get the death penalty.
“I had dreams with her. I wanted to teach her how to drive stick, there were so many things I had planned. I didn’t get closure. They took all of that away from us. You made your bed, lay on it,” said Nisa’s brother, Andres Mickens, as he stared at a wall filled with pictures and posters of her sister.
The indictments have brought some peace of mind to the family. Until then, Elizabeth was constantly worried, looking out the window to see if anyone might be watching them, waiting for them.
As she smoked a cigarette outside of her home, the sun was setting. She looked at a tree that Nisa used to climb and said, “Everyone has to be able to speak about their traumas, their abuses, their experiences. You have to let your demons out and overcome them, rise above them, so that you don’t become a monster yourself, like the monsters who killed my daughter.”