Gang Member Pleads Guilty in Killing of 2 Long Island Teenagers

One night in September 2016, two teenage girls were walking down a street in the Long Island hamlet of Brentwood when they were spotted by four members of MS-13, a violent transnational gang with Salvadoran roots.

Federal prosecutors said the MS-13 members had set out that evening in a car looking for rival gang members to kill. When they saw Kayla Cuevas, 16, prosecutors added, they recognized her as someone their gang had designated for death after a series of disputes with MS-13 members on social media and at school.

The four called Jairo and Alexi Saenz, brothers and leaders of an MS-13 clique. They gave the order to kill Kayla and her 15-year-old friend, Nisa Mickens, prosecutors said. One of the gang members in the car, Enrique Portillo, 19, and two younger members then attacked and killed the girls with baseball bats and a machete, prosecutors said. Timothy Sini, the Suffolk County Police commissioner at the time, called the crime scene the worst he had ever seen.

On Thursday, Mr. Portillo pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering, which included the murder of the two girls as well as other gang-related activity, including several other murders and attempted murders, arson and drug distribution; and to one gun charge related to one of the attempted murders.

“I am guilty,” Mr. Portillo, 26, interjected at one point during the hourlong hearing.

In a statement read by his lawyer, David Stern, Mr. Portillo admitted to being a member of MS-13 and apologized for the killings. “I committed crimes with the group so that I could remain a part of the group,” he said.

“I knew the things I did were wrong and illegal,” he added. “I’m very sorry for my actions.”

As prosecutors described Kayla and Nisa’s killings in graphic detail, several of the victims’ relatives, who had until that point sat still in the front row of the courtroom with their heads bowed, left the room.

Freddy Cuevas, Kayla’s father, staggered out with the aid of a cane, glaring at Mr. Portillo. With him were two weeping, shaking women, one of whom identified herself as Nisa’s aunt.

After the judge, Gary R. Brown of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, accepted his plea, Mr. Portillo grew agitated and interrupted in Spanish that there was one more thing. He demanded that the record show that he had never cooperated with the government.

Mr. Portillo said he feared he would be put in a jail with other MS-13 members, and was afraid of what they might do to him.

As part of his plea agreement, Mr. Portillo, who is from El Salvador and is not a U.S. citizen, will be deported. He will be sentenced on Jan. 19, 2024.

For at least 20 years, MS-13 has stirred terror and outrage in Suffolk County, on the eastern part of Long Island, where the gang’s members have been accused of ruthlessly attacking young people and even threatening detectives. Federal authorities have said that MS-13 is responsible for more than two dozen murders on Long Island since 2013.

Both Saenz brothers were indicted along with Mr. Portillo in March 2017 on charges of murdering Kayla and Nisa. So was Selvin Chavez, who the authorities said was driving the car used by the gang members who killed the two girls. The charges were part of a case against MS-13 members that has included nine indictments over nearly six years. Thirty gang members named in those indictments have been charged with crimes including racketeering, conspiracy, arson and multiple murders.

The murders of Kayla and Nisa exacerbated tension over immigration in Suffolk County, where some residents said they believed an increase in migrants from Central America had led to an increase in gang violence. During a speech in Brentwood 10 months after the killings, President Donald J. Trump decried MS-13, saying its members had “butchered those little girls.” Mr. Trump, who had begun his presidential campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, suggested that gang members had made it into the country because of lax border enforcement.

Kayla’s mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, who emerged as a prominent anti-gang activist after her daughter was killed, was a guest at Mr. Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address. Months later, she was killed in the same spot where her daughter’s body was found.

Around the second anniversary of Kayla’s murder, Ms. Rodriguez visited the site and saw that someone had dismantled a memorial she had placed there, and was about to drive off in an S.U.V. Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Cuevas confronted the driver, Annmarie Drago. Moments later, Ms. Drago drove over Ms. Rodriguez, killing her.

Ms. Drago was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief and petit larceny and was sentenced to nine months in prison. Last year a state appeals court reversed the verdict and sentence and ordered a new trial, citing improper comments by a prosecutor with the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.

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