A leader of an MS-13 gang clique in New York has pleaded guilty to racketeering in a case involving eight murders, including the 2016 killings of two high school girls who were hacked and beaten as they strolled through their leafy, suburban neighborhood on Long Island.

Alexi Saenz, 29, said little as he entered the plea in federal court in Central Islip. His lawyer read a statement in which Saenz admitted ordering or approving the killings of perceived rivals and people who had disrespected or feuded with members of his clique.

Those victims included 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 by a group of young men and teenage boys who had stalked them in a car.

Alexi Saenz has pleaded guilty to racketeering. (AP)

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

The Republican had 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. Cuevas’ mother Evelyn Rodriguez was a guest at Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.

The girls’ deaths also led to questions about whether police on Long Island 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 quietly disappearing in Brentwood, a working class community about 64km east of New York City. After Kayla and Nisa were killed, police discovered the bodies of three other young people in Brentwood, ages 15, 18 and 19, who had vanished months earlier.

Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cueva were killed in 2016. (AP)

Saenz said he wasn’t present when Kayla and Nisa were killed but had phone conversations with other gang members about the attack beforehand.

US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace, whose office prosecuted the case, said that Saenz’s hands are “drenched in blood.”

As part of his guilty plea, Saenz admitted playing a role in six other murders and three attempted murders.

His victims included Javier Castillo, 15, of Central Islip, who was befriended by members of the gang, driven nearly 50km away to Freeport and then fatally attacked with a machete in an isolated marsh. His buried body was discovered a year later in 2017.

Elizabeth Alvarado, Nisa Mickens’ mother, leaves court after Saenz’s plea. (AP)

Another victim, Oscar Acosta, 19, was discovered dead in a wooded area near some railroad tracks days after Kayla and Nisa died. He had disappeared nearly five months earlier when he left his Brentwood home to play soccer.

Older victims included Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, 29, who was killed by a gunman inside a Central Islip deli in early 2017; Dewann Stacks, 34, who was ambushed and beaten to death as he walked along a road in Brentwood near a wooded area sometimes used as a gang meeting spot; Marcus Bohannon, 27, who was shot in 2016; and Michael Johnson, who was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in Brentwood in 2016.

Prosecutors previously withdrew their intent to seek the death penalty in the case. Saenz faces 40 to 70 years in prison when he is sentenced.

Saenz’s lawyers and his supporters declined to comment following the hearing.

Robert Mickens, Evelyn Rodriguez Elizabeth Alvarado and Freddy Cuevas react as US President Donald J. Trump talks about the murder of their daughters. (AAP)
Robert Mickens, Evelyn Rodriguez Elizabeth Alvarado and Freddy Cuevas react as US then-President Donald Trump talks about the murder of their daughters.

Kayla’s father, Freddy Cuevas said outside of court that he was disappointed that the death penalty was taken off the table.

“He’s an animal. He’s inhumane,” Freddy Cuevas said of Saenz. “Hopefully justice will be served soon and we can put this all behind us as far as the families are concerned.”

Nisa’s mother, Elizabeth Alvarado, expressed relief that she and other families of the victims would not have to go through the trauma of a trial.

“All I want is my daughter to be at peace,” she said through tears as she wore a black shirt with her daughter’s name on the back. “The more time we have out, she is never going to be at peace. At the end of the day, she is going to be happy because it will all be over.”

‘Inhuman’: At least 261 dead in nation’s prisons amid war on gangs

In a crackdown that followed the killings, police and federal agents arrested dozens of suspected members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organization 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.

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

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.

Alexi Saenz also admitted to arson, firearms offenses and drug trafficking — the proceeds of which went toward buying firearms, more drugs and providing contributions to the wider MS-13 gang.

His sentencing was scheduled for January 31.

George Johnson, the father of victim Michael Johnson, said he didn’t see any remorse or emotion from Saenz in court.

“He should die in there,” Johnson said, referring to Saenz, who has been in federal custody since his arrest in 2017. “This just seemed like something he wanted to get over and done with.”

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