Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, February 13 I switched from the Winter Olympics to watch a PBS documentary on the Frontline series, narrated in the usually comforting tones of Will Lyman (whose other job is narrating BMW commercials, of all things), who’s done literally hundreds of Frontline videos and whose voice, like Walter Cronkite’s, conveys an air of folksiness and lordly authority at the same time. The show was called The Gang Crackdown and it dealt with the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha Trece, or “Salvadoran Gang 13”) gang, its hold over several American communities — particularly Long Island, New York, where the show was focused — and the attempts of the Trump administration to combat it by deporting virtually all undocumented Salvadoran immigrants who came in as “unaccompanied youths” against whom a claim of gang affiliation can be made, however tenuous.
The show was a bit disappointing in that it lacked much context about MS-13, including the fact that it was actually formed in the U.S. (in Los Angeles in the 1980’s) and it was then imported into El Salvador as the U.S. caught and deported some of its members. According to the Wikipedia page on MS-13, “Originally the gang's main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans. Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested. For example, Jose Abrego, a high-ranking member, was deported four times. As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries. The Los Angeles Times contends that deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America.”
But, as a debunking article posted on Snopes.com, “What Is MS-13?” by Bethania Palma (https://www.snopes.com/2018/02/11/what-is-ms-13/), from most of the coverage of MS-13 you wouldn’t know that it was originally founded in L.A. and then exported to El Salvador and other Central American countries, not the other way around. Palma published her article largely due to the mention President Donald Trump made of MS-13 in his January 30 State of the Union address, in which he made it sound like MS-13 was his justification for taking a hard line against Latin American immigrants in general and Salvadorans in particular:
Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens. Their two teenage daughters — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — were close friends on Long Island. But in September 2016, on the eve of Nisa’s 16th birthday, neither of them came home. These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown. Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders. Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors — and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school.
Evelyn, Elizabeth, Freddy, and Robert: Tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you. And 320 million hearts are breaking for you. We cannot imagine the depth of your sorrow, but we can make sure that other families never have to endure this pain.
Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country. We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.
President Trump’s lurid account of MS-13 in general and two particularly loathsome murders in which the gang is alleged to have taken part is also reflected in the first part of the PBS documentary, which essentially portrays MS-13 as a band of lawless thugs whose only interests are murder and recruiting new members. One of the show’s interviewees, retired detective John Oliva of the Suffolk County Police Department, said, “I’m going to describe them as the most violent gang that we have here on Long Island. They’re killing teenagers. They’re killing our children. It’s just pure violence, and that’s what they thrive on.”
The first half of the PBS program, The Gang Crackdown, is a portrait of MS-13 in general and its “cliques” (the gang’s subdivisions) on Long Island in particular that presents them as such depraved thugs the viewer is led to believe that any action to stop them, however detrimental or offensive to civil liberties or due process, is justified. The narration by Marcela Gaviria, who wrote, produced and directed the program, describes MS-13’s presence in Long Island as having begun “in 2014, when an influx of nearly 9,000 minors, mostly from Central America, started flooding in.” These are called “unaccompanied youth” in immigration-speak, and while some — including a young man identified in the program only as “Junior,” who features prominently in the film’s second half — were joining parents or relatives already in the U.S., others were simply fleeing the war and violence endemic in El Salvador ever since the civil war of the early 1980’s.
One of Gaviria’s interviewees, Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission, explained, “What we were seeing [was] a drastic increase in violence in Central America. We were seeing that gangs had really taken over entire neighborhoods. Children were being threatened and forcibly recruited into gangs under the threat of death to themselves or their families.”
Huntington High School in Huntington, New York is one of the schools the new arrivals went to for an education. One of them, the show explained, was Junior, who had come to the U.S. by train to live with his father, George, who’d been in Long Island for a decade. He had emigrated in 2016, at age 14, largely to avoid being recruited into a gang in his native Honduras. In a series of subtitled interviews, Junior describes being scared by the train, overjoyed to see again the father who’d left when Junior was just three — and intimidated when he found that the same gangs he’d fled Honduras to avoid had their hooks into the student body at Huntington High.
“I was scared when they would talk to me about the gangs, and would ask me if I wanted to be one of them,” Junior recalled. “And I would tell them no.”
“The recruitment starts right out at the school,” retired Suffolk County detective Oliva added. “They’ll approach you [and say], ‘Hey, we’re part of the gang.’ A lot of these kids, especially the undocumented ones that came into this country … came here with really no friends … and they were very easily absorbed by these guys. It was almost like they were being given a feeling that they have a family now.”
The show followed another young immigrant, Jésus Lopez from El Salvador, who arrived in Huntington in 2014 — two years before Junior — and also found that the gangs he’d fled his home country to escape were very much present in the U.S. “I started studying in September , after I got in. I started studying at Huntington High School. I didn’t adapt quickly, but I liked it because I was learning things. I got good grades.” He also got an after-school job at a local restaurant, where his co-workers liked him and were impressed by his dedication. “I would go to cook, then go to school, cook, and go to school,” Lopez said. “I was just working so I could send money back to my parents.”
Julia Saltman, one of Lopez’s co-workers at the restaurant, said Lopez and other immigrants told her “they were being hassled at school. If MS wants to find you and wants to start trouble, it’s difficult to avoid. It just terrified them.”
Just what MS-13 wanted new members like Jésus Lopez and Junior to do remained a mystery in the PBS program, which never explained the economics of the gang. It presented them basically as amoral criminal thugs with no concern about anything, including making money from their activities. This is pretty much the standard picture of them; the Wikipedia page on MS-13 claims, “They are notorious for their violence and a subcultural moral code based on merciless retribution.” The Wikipedia page said that they were recruited as security people, enforcers and hit men for the Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel because of their cruelty.
Various reports have linked MS-13 to immigrant smuggling and human trafficking, as well as spreading terror among would-be immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries on Mexico’s southern border. According to Stephen Dudley, co-director of a think tank called InsightCrime that studies organized crime in the Americas:
They are often painted as an international drug smuggling or human trafficking organization. We get no indication they are deeply involved in anything other than pretty systematic extortion in Central America and other places they’re operational. They’re very much a hand-to-mouth criminal organization — this is not the Sinaloa cartel. …
We found no evidence to indicate the gang itself was paying for anybody to actually come to the U.S. This for us was the key indicator. Of course there’s communication [among members about migration] but these decisions to pick up and leave are very intimate family decisions that we think are determined by the closest inner circle of these individuals. The gang is a very intimate group to be sure but they are not the final determinants of this.
Nor did we find any evidence that they are so sophisticated that they’re finding loopholes in the U.S. system to replenish depleted cells that are in the U.S. They’re finding ways to take advantage of the movement of people that happens organically, through the already-established migrant paths to the places where there are populations of the same nationality really, regardless of whether or not there are any gang members there. It’s a huge leap to say that there is a plan afoot on the part of the gang to move people.
We also found that the gang itself is a very loosely knit organization, especially at the top. There is no single ruling council that controls every piece of the gang. The gang members themselves are more loyal to their particular cliques than they are to the actual gang in most instances.
“What has grabbed recent headlines for the now decades-old gang was a spate of gruesome murders on the East Coast and evidence that some factions of MS-13 are trying to accomplish some of the things they are being accused of doing — if unsuccessfully,” Palma wrote in her Snopes article — for which Dudley of InsightCrime and University of Southern California associate professor of anthropology Thomas Ward were principal sources. Dudley told Palma:
They have tried to establish better means of communication between their different factions, the major factions being West Coast, East Coast and El Salvador. To some extent there is more movement of money and weapons.
There are tendencies that are worrying for sure, and probably the most worrying aspect is their ability to take advantage of the vulnerability of large numbers of youth and incorporate many of them into their ranks and involve them in really macabre criminal acts in places like Maryland, Long Island and the Boston area. But the standard answer of increasing enforcement and vilifying entire communities — with 40 years of experience behind us, we can say that is not going to lead to the end of this gang.
Wald argues that by sensationalizing MS-13 and making them seem like, in the title of a previous (2005) National Geographic special about them, the “World’s Most Dangerous Gang,” politicians like President Trump may actually be helping MS-13 recruit. “The president doesn’t realize it, but he’s doing a disservice to the public [and] a service to the gang because it elevates their reputation,” Wald told Palma. “All gang members and all gangs want to be known as notorious. By mentioning them as this horrendous group of people who are like terrorists, he’s elevating their status. It fuels the flames of crime and violence because it attracts youth who are rebellious and are seeking to belong to some group that will accept them.”
Protecting the Innocent
The second half of the PBS Frontline special on MS-13, “The Gang Crackdown,” does a virtual 180° from the first half. Where the show began by highlighting the savagery of MS-13’s murders in Long Island, mostly of fellow teenage Salvadoran migrants, the second half strongly critiques law enforcement in general and the Trump administration in particular for behaving as if police action against the gang and deportations of its members are going to be enough to solve the problem. Timothy Sini, police commissioner for Suffolk County, Long Island from 2015 to 2017, is shown on the “Gang Crackdown” program saying that “we have promised to eradicate MS-13 from our streets”
Sergio Argueta, an activist with a community anti-gang group called S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth (http://www.strongyouth.com/), replied on the show, saying, “This idea that you’re going to launch this repressive attack and you’re going to annihilate this gang — violence meeting violence is not going to solve the issue.”
In March 2017, Suffolk County law enforcement officers arrested four MS-13 members for the murders of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, the two young victims President Trump had mentioned in the State of the Union speech. One month later, on April 11, police found the bodies of four young immigrant men — Mike Lopez, Justin Llivicura, Jefferson Villalobos and Jorge Tigre — in what they described as a “killing field.” The young men had been hacked to death with machetes, a preferred murder method for MS-13, and police believed that girlfriends of MS-13 members had lured them into the woods where they were killed with promises of sex.
Given the history of bad relations between Suffolk County law enforcement and the immigrant communities — “By the simple fact that you are undocumented, they treat you very poorly; there is a lot of arrogance, a lot of racism” one unidentified woman who appeared to be victim Mike Lopez’s mother told Frontline — the boys’ parents and friends of their families organized their own search parties when the boys went missing. “I was worried because Mike always answered my messages,” the woman said. “He always talked to me. He always answered. And that night, he never answered.”
President Trump’s public statements on MS-13 and the Long Island killings showed two of his least attractive qualities: his tendency to demonize entire groups of people and his belief that the way to stop bullies and thugs is to bully them and be thug-like in treating them. He canceled the entire program for helping Salvadoran refugees settle in the U.S. and repeatedly threatened that his answer for dealing with MS-13 was to deport them. In one tweet, Trump said, “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across [the] U.S. We are removing them fast!”
Trump also openly endorsed police brutality as an appropriate way to deal with MS-13. He picked Long Island as the site of his July 28, 2017 speech advocating that police take a hard line against arrestees and suspects. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
Apparently Trump picked Long Island as the locale for this speech because he believed the Suffolk County Police Department’s experiences with MS-13 would prime them to accept his thug-like advice for how police officers should behave. If so, he was mistaken. Just hours after Trump’s speech, the department responded with an e-mail which read, “The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously. As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”
Though both President Trump and attorney general Jeff Sessions turned down Frontline’s request for interviews for “The Gang Crackdown,” deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein was interviewed — and anyone on the liberal or progressive Left who regards Rosenstein as a hero for his resistance to Trump’s attempts to meddle into the investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. elections will be sobered by his remarks on the Frontline “Gang Crackdown” program. He gave a full-throated party-line defense of Trump’s law enforcement policies in general and his reliance on deportation as a key front-line weapon against MS-13 in particular:
The reason MS-13 has been our priority this year is because of the unprecedented growth of the gang, and the extraordinary depravity we see in some of the criminal activity it commits. But in terms of the overall objectives of the administration, our goal is to keep out the criminals in the first place. In fact, the majority of the MS-13 members that we prosecute are illegal aliens, and a large proportion of them are unaccompanied minors. And people here unlawfully and [who] pose a danger to American citizens are removed as quickly as possible.
The Crackdown in Practice
The final segment of the Frontline MS-13 documentary “The Gang Crackdown” focuses on the cases of the two young immigrants profiled earlier in the show, “Junior” and Jésus Lopez to show how Suffolk County’s and the feds’ emphasis on apprehension, immigration and a “zero tolerance” policy towards actual or suspected gang-affiliated young men works in practice. It begins with the narrator explaining that in late 2016 local law enforcement in Long Island started focusing on middle schools and high schools, scrutinizing new students to see if they had gang-related clothing or other supposed markers of membership or affiliation.
One anonymous school resource officer — a sworn police officer embedded in a school in part to ferret out suspected gang members —showed Frontline a photo of an old-style MS-13 member with the heavy tattooing and body art that used to be typical of the gang. Then, he explained, “You really don’t see this guy anymore. … It’s going to be the kid in the skinny jeans and the polo shirt and maybe the Chicago Bulls cap.” The reason for the latter is that the bull is a symbol for MS-13 and a lot of members supposedly started wearing gear from the Chicago Bulls basketball team as a way of proclaiming their gang affiliation while seeming to be innocuous sports fans.
Mariana Gil, assistant principal of Bellport Middle School in Long Island, told Frontline that local police visit her school and others in the area to educate school staff about what to look for that might indicate a student has ties to MS-13. “They put on a presentation,” she explained. “They show images of bandanas, or bull’s horns. And they tell us that those are the items that if we see the students wearing or drawing, that we should be on the alert because it’s related to a gang.”
School officials responded to the law-enforcement presentation by calling hundreds of students to principals’ offices, questioning them and often suspending them on flimsy evidence. Some students were harassed and told that they had written “503” in their notebooks. It’s the area code for El Salvador, and it’s a set of numbers police in Long Island apparently regard as a sign of MS-13 affiliation. “Duh, that’s the area code of where they’re from,” said Sergio Argueta of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth.
Jésus Lopez was one of the students identified early on as an MS-13 affiliate. “The school had sent a paper that said I had written MS-13 on my hand, but I knew it wasn’t true,” he told Frontline. “I had only written the name of my girlfriend on my hand. I didn’t write MS-13.” This sent him into a Kafka-esque situation where the mere existence of a school report that he’d written MS-13 on his hand — with no photograph or other documentation that it wasn’t just the name of a girlfriend — became “truth.” He had no opportunity to defend himself against the allegation; it just stood and was accepted as fact throughout the process.
Junior also got caught up in the Huntington High dragnet. His father George was startled when in March 2017 he received a call from the school to come to campus because his son was in trouble. George’s employer told Frontline, “They said, ‘Look, we want to keep this kind of simple. He’s been accused of making signs of MS-13. Just sign the paper. And we’re going to suspend Junior, and if he wants to come back to school, he can come back to school next year, 2018.’ And George, he signed the paper. And as soon as he signed the paper, it was just a snowball going downhill.”
In late June 2017 — just before President Trump gave his big speech in Long Island urging law enforcement not to worry about injuring people in the course of arresting them — Lopez was apprehended at the restaurant where he worked. “A truck was waiting for him in the back of the restaurant, and when he walked out of work, they picked him up,” recalled his co-worker Julia Saltman. “They took them out so fast.” Concerned that Lopez would be deported, Saltman hired him an attorney — and the attorney, Adam Tavares, told Frontline that the only information the government gave him to support its charges against Lopez was a two-page memo that misidentified his name as “Polanco.”
Neither school officials nor Suffolk County law enforcement would officially describe the criteria they use to determine whether a student is MS-13, an MS-13 wanna-be or merely someone wearing gang colors, Chicago Bulls paraphernalia or the area code of El Salvador without knowing that’s going to get them accused of being part of MS-13. “We don’t publicly disclose the criteria because if we did, when our officers and detectives are attempting to generate intelligence, MS-13 would be one step ahead of us,” former Suffolk County police commissioner Sini said.
But Sini readily acknowledged that he and his department used deportation or the threat of deportation — including extended detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — to go after people they suspect of MS-13 affiliation but haven’t committed any crime:
For example, if we have intelligence that they are a gang member, that’s not necessarily a crime, right? Certainly, being a gang member is not a crime, and the intel that we may have may not indicate a significant state crime. We may have something small on them, but nothing that’s going to keep them in jail. So if we perceive someone as a public safety threat, we utilize all of our tools, which include immigration tools. So we’ll partner with the Department of Homeland Security to target them for detention and removal.
Junior got caught up in a law-enforcement attack on MS-13 called “Operation Matador” — an attempt to turn MS-13’s bull symbol against it by invoking the person who kills the bull in a bullfight — when Suffolk County police got a series of so-called “gang memos” circulated by ICE, many based on information from embedded cops in the schools (“school resource officers”). Frontline obtained copies of several of these “gang memos,” one of which identified Junior as an active MS-13 member. Junior denied it, telling Frontline, “I’m not a gang member. I’m a church-going young man … I don’t even have a criminal record.”
But neither he nor his father and legal guardian, George, would get a chance to contest the “gang memo” in court. Four days after the “gang memo” identifying Junior was drafted, he was followed on his way to church by four black vehicles. Later, George’s employer recalled, “I got a phone call from George and he said that they took Junior. They said, ‘We’re taking the boy. We’re government.’”
Like Julia Saltman with Jésus Lopez, George hired an immigration attorney to represent Junior. The attorney, Dawn Pipek Guidone, was shocked that the government shipped Junior to a detention facility in Shenandoah, Virginia, without any notice either to his father or to her, his official legal counsel. Eventually Guidone helped George and his employer reached out to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which was putting together a class-action lawsuit challenging the legality of the crackdown.
“During the summertime [of 2017], I remember our office would get calls almost every Friday or so beginning around June or July where we’d hear from a family saying, ‘Our kid was just taken from us. We don’t know where he is,’” NYCLU attorney Phil Desgranges told Frontline. “And so then we’re calling around, trying to figure out would the immigration attorney know, and the immigration attorney has no idea, as well. And that seemed to be a pattern that happened, you know, weekend after weekend.”
The NYCLU took on Junior’s case and eventually located him. “In Virginia, he was kept in solitary confinement, you know, where all he had in his cell was a bed, a toilet, and no window,” Desgranges said. “It was a really traumatizing experience for him. This is a kid who had never been arrested, never been charged with a crime. There’s no allegation that he committed a crime. But nonetheless, he’s been in detention for four months.”
Junior himself told Frontline, “You can never see the sun or the moon [in detention]. I was desperate. In my desperation, I made a lot of mistakes. I tried to kill myself. I took my shirt off and made a rope. And I put it around my neck, and I started to kill myself. The only thing I thought about was that my dad loves me, and I love him, too. They were trying to revive me and I didn’t respond because I was already dying. After that, they put me on restriction, with no clothes. They took everything away from me. I was suffering through the cold for a week. Here I cut my vein. I stuck in a piece of glass and a lot of blood came out. Here, too. Desperation had taken over me, sadness, solitude, and that’s why I made this mistake.”
The NYCLU was finally able to get Junior transferred from Virginia to a less restrictive facility in New York, and eventually they got him a hearing before a judge — the first sign of due process in his months-long ordeal. Junior’s attorney, Dawn Pipek Guidone, told the judge in the case, “We were served with the memo, very unsubstantiated information, wearing certain colors to school, allegations of throwing gang signs. The allegations are completely general in nature. They don’t indicate anything other than association with gang members, but they provide no identification of these individuals.”
Guidone objected to the use of the gang memo as evidence, and asked the judge to release Junior immediately. The judge said he couldn’t. “What you’re talking about is something I have no authority over,” he said. “Unless I’m mistaken, I can’t order him released from Children’s Village. That is not within the scope of my authority.”
In August 2017, attorney Julia Harumi Mass with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California filed a class-action lawsuit to release 34 people who had been detained by ICE as suspected gang members without due process. Junior was one of the plaintiffs in her case. Three months later, she won a court order stating that ICE would have to go through judicial hearings on each detainee and let a judge rule on whether the gang allegations were valid or not — and they would have to release the ones against whom there was insufficient evidence or no evidence at all.
Once the hearings started, 28 of the ACLU’s 34 clients — including Junior — were ordered released. But the court ruling in favor of the ACLU applied only to minors, not legal adults. Because he was 18, Lopez stayed in custody until December, when he was deported. “Honestly, it’s really terrible because there are bad criminals here, but they’re treated better than us,” Lopez told Frontline in an interview at the New Jersey detention facility, where he was held until he was deported. “Sometimes they bring us to court with our hands and feet cuffed, whereas they bring the others in with just their hands cuffed to their stomach. So they treat us worse than these big criminals.”
Lopez told Frontline his big fear is that as a deportee back in El Salvador he’ll be suspected of gang ties by rival gangsters, and be murdered. “I’m very scared I’ll get back, and they’ll think I’m a gang member. They can look for me at my house. They can assassinate me. I don’t want to end up like a lot of people who are deported who later end up dead in the streets.”
Frontline’s “The Gang Crackdown” episode ended with some chilling statistics and yet another hard-line statement by President Trump against MS-13. According to the program, 44 of the over 400 people taken into custody under “Operation Matador” have been deported. Suffolk County authorities, working with ICE, have launched a new operation, “Raging Bull,” and made 218 arrests since the murders of Misa Nickens and Kayla Cuevas. “Gang members took advantage of glaring loophole in our laws to enter the country as illegal unaccompanied alien minors,” President Trump says in the clip from his January 30 State of the Union speech that ends the program. “Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
There’s an old saying that “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” When the full resources of the federal government are turned on a vicious, reprehensible criminal organization like MS-13, the blades of grass that get trampled are the innocent victims of MS-13’s depradations and brutalities — and the innocent immigrants trying to work themselves up and live the American dream, who get accused of gang affiliations and are deported on the flimsiest of evidence. President Trump didn’t start the Right-wing ideology on crime — that any attack on suspected “criminals,” whether or not they’ve actually done anything illegal, is warranted and those pesky guarantees of “due process” in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments just get in the way of law enforcement — but, as with so much of the rest of the ideology of the American Right, he’s put his own spin of bigotry, hatred and brutality on it.