In March 2017, 13 MS-13 gang members were charged with seven murders, including those of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, who were killed in Brentwood, New York, in 2016. The girls were killed while walking down a street, galvanizing the community and local law enforcement. They were part of a string of murders in the area. Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, and Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, the girls’ parents, attended the State of the Union address as President Trump’s guests.
Mickens and Cuevas were teenage girls who excelled at basketball and hoped to go on to careers in medicine and law enforcement. Here’s what you need to know about them:
1. Police Say the Killings Showed a ‘Level of Brutality That Is Close to Unmatched’
Nisa Mickens’ body was found on Stahley Street in Brentwood, New York on September 13, 2016, the day before her 16th birthday. Her friend Kayla Cuevas was found dead the next day in a nearby backyard. Police said both teens had significant injuries to the head and face, as well as cutting injuries, and died of blunt force trauma.
“These murders show a level of brutality that is close to unmatched,” Suffolk County police commissioner Tim Sini told CBS.
MS-13 gang members, who have been charged in the murders, are known for using bats and machetes to kill their victims. Robert Capers, the United States District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said Mickens was so badly beaten around her face that she was barely recognizable.
“The murders of these teens are particularly disturbing,” he said.
The girls were celebrating Mickens’ upcoming birthday when they were attacked.
President Trump recognized the girls’ parents during his State of the Union address, saying “everyone in America is grieving for you.”
2. The Murders Were the Result of a Social Media Feud
Cuevas had feuded with MS-13 members at school and on social media. Capers told reporters that Cuevas was “marked for death” because of the feuds. Mickens, he said, was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
According to a Justice Department press release, Cuevas was involved in a series of disputes with MS-13 members. These disputes escalated about a week before the murders, when Cuevas and some of her friends were involved in an altercation with MS-13 members at Brentwood High School, where she and Mickens were enrolled. The gang members vowed to seek revenge.
On September 13, MS-13 members were driving around hunting for rival gang members to kill, according to the press release. While they were driving through Brentwood, gang members Selvin Chavez, Enrique Portillo, and two juvenile members saw Cuevas and Mickens walking down Stahley Street, authorities said. They called the leaders of the Sailors clique, their faction of MS-13, who told them to kill the girls. Chavez was driving and pulled up to the girls, then Portillo and the other members jumped out of the cars and attacked them with baseball bats and a machete, according to police. When they finished, Chavez drove the group away, police said.
On March 2, 2017, 13 MS-13 members were charged with racketeering, seven murders, attempted murders, assaults, obstruction of justice, arson, conspiracy to distribute marijuana, and related firearms and conspiracy charges.
“The day Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas were heinously murdered, the Suffolk County Police Department made a commitment to their families and to the residents of Brentwood that justice would be served. Today, in collaboration with the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office, we have delivered on that promise. We have also promised to eradicate MS-13 from our streets and we remain fully committed to finishing the job,” Tim Sini said in the press release.
3. They Were Best Friends Who Bonded Over a Love of Basketball & Big Dreams
Cuevas and Mickens bonded over a love of basketball and dreams of joining the WNBA. Mickens’ mother told Newsday the girls played on a traveling basketball team together.
Newsday reported that Cuevas was outgoing while Mickens was quiet, but they both had goals to rise above drug and gang violence in their community.
“Kayla, she was a very outgoing student. Energetic, charismatic, full of leadership qualities,” said Brentwood East Middle School Principal Barry Mohammed. “She loved to play basketball and she loved to be among her friends.” Nisa was very quiet, had a calm demeanor. She was very loving. She was always there to help and support others.”
Mickens hoped to become a veterinarian or nurse, and Cuevas wanted to go into law enforcement.
The girls were both from “supportive and involved” families, according to Mohammed.
At a candlelight vigil held on September 16, 2016, for the girls, Robert Mickens, Nisa’s father, told CBS it was “going to be difficult for the rest of our lives.” Mickens ran for school board in May 2017.
Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla’s mother, was seen sobbing at the scene of where her daughter’s body was found.
4. They Were Bullied at School & Kayla’s Mother Has Sued the District for Negligence
Cuevas’ mother said that for two years before the murders, she told Brentwood High School and the Suffolk County police that gang members were threatening Kayla. She sued the Brentwood district for negligence in 2017.
“She had to wear a tough skin every day to go to school,” she told Newsday. “She had to be a tough girl to survive.”
Rodriguez told a congressional subcommittee on gang violence that Cuevas was bullied for two years. “They get them in school,” she said.
5. Kayla’s Mom Has Been Vocal About Stopping MS-13
Evelyn Rodriguez met with President Trump in July 2017 at Suffolk Community College, where she spoke to him about funding.
“Stop cutting our funding,” she told the New York Times ahead of the president’s visit. “The more you cut services, the more our kids are going to be out on the street, getting into mischief. We got to do something. We cannot let this continue.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and the South Bronx, agrees with President Trump that immigrants who are criminals should not be able to enter the United States or enroll in schools.
She’s working with Barbara Medina, a crime victims’ advocate, to create support groups for families of children who have been killed. She has also asked the Brentwood schools superintendent to add security guards, surveillance cameras, and gang-prevention programs.
“There are days where you feel like you want your world to end, just like your child’s,” she told the New York Times. “Then you realize you have a new purpose: to fight, so that your child’s death is not in vain.”