As President Trump Focuses on MS-13, FRONTLINE Investigates “The Gang Crackdown” on Long Island

February 7, 2018

The Gang Crackdown
Tuesday, February 13, 2018, at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS (check local listings) | Twitter: @frontlinepbs #frontlinepbs
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In a spate of brutal violence that has become a focal point of President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration and a priority of his Justice Department, some 25 dead bodies have been found on Long Island since 2016 — all linked to the violent gang MS-13. Many of the gang’s victims, like its members, have been immigrants.

On Tuesday, February 13, in The Gang Crackdown, FRONTLINE investigates the impact of both the gruesome killings and the resulting anti-gang crackdown on Long Island — home to one of the U.S.’s largest communities of unaccompanied minors, who fled gang violence in Central America only to face it here.

“This department is 100 percent committed to bringing everyone to justice,” Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, formerly the county police commissioner, tells FRONTLINE about MS-13’s violence.

But in its efforts to stop MS-13, has law enforcement gone too far?

Drawing on interviews with murder victims’ families, accused gang members, top Justice Department officials including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, local law enforcement and ICE leadership, and civil rights and immigration lawyers, The Gang Crackdown explores the reasons behind the spike in violence on Long Island— and examines whether law enforcement and the government have overreached in trying to combat it.

“We’ve found that the crackdown has led to many immigrant teens being accused of gang affiliation and unlawfully detained — including a 15-year-old boy who was held without a hearing for months in a detention facility after allegedly making MS-13 drawings in his school notebook and associating with gang members,” says award-winning producer Marcela Gaviria (Chasing Heroin, Firestone and the Warlord).

His story isn’t unique, according to his attorney: “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,’” says Philip Desgranges of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Since the spring, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested around 400 suspected gang members — around 60 of whom were unaccompanied minors when they arrived in the U.S. — in the New York metro area, including Long Island, as part of the ongoing crackdown. But as The Gang Crackdown explores, a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of California (where some minors from Long Island were sent) led to the release of at least 27 minors ultimately held to have been detained without sufficient evidence. In the documentary, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein defends the government’s approach and responds to allegations that some minors’ right to due process were violated.

I think that’s probably a very unfair characterization,” Rosenstein says, adding, “I think we have pretty substantial due process rights for people who are in the United States unlawfully. Much more so than you see in many foreign countries.”

With tensions running high between immigrant communities and local police, The Gang Crackdown examines how law enforcement determines who is an MS-13 member and who isn’t.

The documentary also investigates the controversial role of schools in identifying potential MS-13 members to law enforcement, and how law enforcement has increasingly partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target minors perceived as threats for detention and deportation.

“In this film, you’ll see the struggles of law enforcement in dealing with this very difficult situation, the struggles of immigrants who feel targeted by both MS-13 and law enforcement, and the microcosm of a community that’s stuck with a really dangerous problem,” says Gaviria.

As President Trump cites the violence on Long Island to call for tougher immigration policies and justify ramping up deportations, The Gang Crackdown is a gripping, must-watch look at how anti-gang efforts have played out in Long Island — and what might happen next.

“We know from documents that have been produced in our lawsuit that the targeting of gang members or of presumed gang members is a national operation, and Long Island was a testing ground, a pilot program, but this is supposed to be rolled out throughout the country,” Julia H. Mass of the ACLU of California tells FRONTLINE.

Watch The Gang Crackdown Tuesday, February 13 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS (check local listings) or online at

The Gang Crackdown is a FRONTLINE production with Rain Media. The writer, producer and director is Marcela Gaviria. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 89 Emmy Awards and 20 Peabody Awards. Visit and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and Google+ to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Park Foundation, the John and Helen Glessner Family Trust and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.

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