New York gang leader pleads guilty in case involving eight murders

A leader of an MS-13 gang in New York has pleaded guilty to racketeering and firearms charges in a case involving eight murders, including the 2016 killings of two high school girls who were hacked and beaten to death on Long Island.

Alexi Saenz entered the plea on Wednesday in federal court in Central Islip. Prosecutors previously withdrew an attempt to seek the death penalty in his case.

Among the deaths he was accused of ordering are the killings of Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, lifelong friends and classmates at Brentwood High School – who were killed with a machete and a baseball bat.

The deaths of the high school students focused the nation’s attention on MS-13 gang violence during the administration of President Donald Trump.

The Republican called for the death penalty for Saenz and others arrested in the killings and blamed the violence and gang growth on lax immigration policies as he made several visits to Long Island.

Ms Cuevas’ mother Evelyn Rodriguez was a guest at Mr Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.

The girls’ deaths led to questions about whether police had been aggressive enough in confronting what was then a serious threat of gangs developing inside area high schools.

For months in 2016, Hispanic children and young men had been disappearing in Brentwood, a working class community 40 miles east of New York City.

After Ms Cuevas and Ms Mickens were killed, police discovered the bodies of three other young people in Brentwood, ages 15, 18 and 19, who had vanished months earlier.

Police and federal agents arrested dozens of suspected members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organisation believed to have been founded as a neighbourhood street gang in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by people fleeing civil war in El Salvador.

Ms Cuevas’ mother became an anti-gang activist after her daughter’s death but was herself killed in 2018.

Ms Rodriguez was fatally struck by a car during a dispute over a memorial marking the second anniversary of her daughter’s death. The driver, Annmarie Drago, pleaded guilty in 2024 to negligent homicide.

Saenz’s lawyers did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

Prosecutors said Saenz, also known as “Blasty” and “Big Homie,” was the leader of an MS-13 clique operating in Brentwood and Central Islip known as Sailors Locos Salvatruchas Westside.

Charges are still pending against his brother, Jairo Saenz, who prosecutors say was second-in-command in the local gang.

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