The Gang CrackdownView film
NEWSCASTER: A significant show of force today in Nassau County. Police converged on a field in Roosevelt after they received a tip about a possible gang-related homicide─
NARRATOR: The bodies keep turning up.
NEWSCASTER: The search stems from a possible homicide committed by MS-13, the violent Latin American gang that has been a scourge on Long Island.
NARRATOR: Teenagers mainly, killed in the woods, 25 corpses since 2016, and others still missing.
COMMISSIONER: At this time, we have not found or identified any human remains.
NARRATOR: Gangs have long been a problem on Long Island.
COMMISSIONER: I cannot comment on if it’s MS-13─
NARRATOR: But why the sudden spike in gang violence?
COMMISSIONER: OK, thank you very much. Thank you very much.
NARRATOR: And how far will law enforcement go to win this war?
NEWSCASTER: Suffolk County police today declared war on MS-13.
─ I consider them domestic terrorists. Either they win, or we win!
NARRATOR: Long Island stretches eastward from New York City for about a hundred miles. The place is known for its beaches and mansions. But en route is a very different world, densely populated communities which have become a magnet for immigrant families from Central America. Some are here legally. Others are undocumented. And their numbers have more than doubled in the last two decades.
It’s also home to a vicious gang that has claimed the lives of dozens, mainly immigrants, over that same time. This is the funeral for Javier Castillo, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, believed to be one of the latest victims of MS-13.
Det. JOHN OLIVA (Ret.), Suffolk County Police Dept.: It’s a Salvadorian gang. It’s predominantly out of the Central American countries. I’m going to describe them as the most violent gang that we have out here on Long Island. They’re killing teenagers. They’re killing our children. It’s just pure violence, and that’s─ that’s what they thrive on.
NARRATOR: Law enforcement officials here believe there are anywhere from 200 to 300 active MS-13 members and about a dozen subgroups, known as cliques. Brentwood, Central Islip and Huntington, towns with large Central American presence, are hotbeds.
Sgt. STEVEN LUNDQUIST, Suffolk Co. Sheriff’s Office: Graffiti marks a territory. It announces to the community that there is a gang in their area. When you look for gang graffiti, you look for different colors, you look for numbers and letters. You can see, it─ it announces their clique. The BLS is the Brentwood Loca Salvatrucha clique. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was in Brentwood. It could be in another town, and they’re letting the other town know that not only are we in Brentwood, we’re in your town also.
You see here, you’ve got the SLSW, which is the Sailor clique, MS-13 with the anchor, obviously in blue also. They want to cause fear and panic in an area.
NARRATOR: To go after them, the Suffolk County Police Gang Unit has been working overtime.
Lt. THOMAS ZAGAJESKI, Suffolk County Police Dept.: MS-13 is the type of gang that likes to hang out in the woods. We go out every day. We hunt these guys. They stop suspected MS-13 people. They engage them. They’re in their face. There’s no place for them to go. We make it known to them that we do not want them here and we’re are doing everything we can to get them out.
These woods are in the heart of Brentwood that’s become a hang-out for MS-13. Right over here is all 503 graffiti. 503 being the area code for El Salvador. You can also tell by the debris they leave all over the place. They’re disgusting. They don’t care about anything. They don’t care about anybody. They leave trash all over the place.
They think this area is theirs. It’s not. Nothing is theirs. And over time, they know that they’re not going to be here anymore. These guys are doing a terrific job, and they do it every day, relentlessly.
NARRATOR: For the past few years, a perfect storm has been brewing on Long Island. It all began in 2014, when an influx of nearly 9,000 minors, mostly from Central America, started flooding in.
NEWSCASTER: More kids this year over last year. They say that 95 percent of them are children from the border.
MARCELA GAVIRIA, Producer: What happened?
MICHELLE BRANE, Women’s Refugee Commission: Well, at that time, what we were seeing is a drastic increase in violence in Central America. We were seeing that gangs had really taken over entire neighborhoods. Children were being threatened and forcefully recruited into gangs under the threat of death to themselves or to their families.
NARRATOR: They came north as unaccompanied minors, or UACs. Local officials quickly felt the impact.
TIMOTHY SINI, Suffolk Co. Police Commissioner, 2015-17: Since 2014, we have received approximately 5,000 UACs, and we have to deal with it on multiple fronts. Some of these children need special attention in school. Many of these children need some sort of social services from the county. And unfortunately, some of these children become victims of crimes, or become offenders.
NARRATOR: Huntington High is one of the many schools here that took in some of the new arrivals from Central America. Fourteen-year-old Junior had enrolled as a freshman starting in the fall of 2016 after fleeing the gangs of Honduras. For his protection, we’ve concealed his identity. His father, George, had come to Long Island a decade ago. He had told his employer, Arnold, about his concerns for his son.
ARNOLD: George knew that his son, when he got to a certain age, that gangs down in Honduras were looking to pick you up and make you a gang member. And George was very, very worried about that.
NARRATOR: After turning 13, Junior took a freight train that has carried hundreds of thousands of migrants to America.
JUNIOR: [subtitles] I was scared the first time I saw the train because I had never seen anything as big as that train, called la Bestia. You can fall, and the train can drag you. You can lose your life, of course. Thank God I’m still alive.
NARRATOR: The trip lasted over a month. Junior made it to the Rio Grande in October and crossed the border. After being apprehended by Customs and Border Protection, Junior was taken to a holding cell.
SONIA NAZARIO, Author, Enrique’s Journey: Children and migrants call them hieleras─ ice boxes. And typically, children describe sleeping on a concrete floor, there’s no bed, not being fed enough, being held in these icy cold jail cells, which are only meant to be very temporary.
NARRATOR: When he arrived in New York unaccompanied, his father, George, and his father’s employer, Arnold, were waiting for him at the airport.
ARNOLD: He came over there with his little thing around his neck, saying, “unaccompanied minor,” and─ and George was ecstatic.
GEORGE: [subtitles] It was an unforgettable day when I got to see my son again. After seeing him when he was 3 years old, his hair was long, such a beautiful boy. And seeing him 10 years later was an emotion that is etched in my mind.
NARRATOR: But Junior had trouble adjusting, and he would soon find out that the very gangs he had fled in Honduras were also in his school.
JUNIOR: [subtitles] I was scared when they would talk to me about the gangs. And they would ask me if I wanted to be one of them. And I would tell them no.
Det. JOHN OLIVA (Ret.), Suffolk County Police Dept.: The recruitment starts right out of the school. They’ll approach you, “Hey, we’re part of the gang.” A lot of these kids, especially the undocumented ones that came into the country, you know, they’d come here with really no friends, if they did have a family member or if they didn’t have a family member. And they were very easily absorbed by these guys. It was almost like they were given a feeling that they have a family now.
NARRATOR: Another teenager, Jesus Lopez, had enrolled at Huntington High in the fall of 2014. He had fled the gangs of El Salvador and arrived on Long Island at the height of the surge.
JESUS LOPEZ: [subtitles] I started studying in September, after I got in. I started studying at Huntington High School. I didn’t adapt very quickly, but I liked it because I was learning things. I got good grades.
NARRATOR: At night, he would work at a local restaurant.
JESUS LOPEZ: [subtitles] I would go to cook, then go to school, cook, and go to school. I was just working so I could make money to send back to my parents.
NARRATOR: He told one of the chefs at work about the trouble he and his friends were having at school.
JULIA SALTMAN, Jesus’s Co-worker: They were being hassled at school. You know, if MS wants to come find you and wants to start trouble, it’s difficult to avoid. It just terrified them.
NARRATOR: Junior also was terrified.
GEORGE: [subtitles] One day he told me: “Dad, they tell me that if I don’t join the gang, they’re going to beat me up.” And I was filled with fear.
ARNOLD: Right down the street from where he lives, there’s a laundromat and these─ these gang members were hanging out, so that his son didn’t even want to go out of the house. He says, “These people are─ you know, are threatening me and telling me that if you don’t, you know, come with us and do what we want you to do, we’re going to─ we’re going to hurt you. We’re going to hurt your family. You know, we’re going to hurt your father.”
NEWSCASTER: The search is on this morning for two missing teens from Nassau County. Police say─
NARRATOR: These were not empty threats.
NEWSCASTER: The mother says her son left one night and then never returned.
NARRATOR: On Long Island, there had been a string of disappearances.
NEWSCASTER: ─tonight over a missing 19-year-old son. Oscar Acosta, disappeared two weeks ago─
NARRATOR: Teens who never came home.
OFFICER: Our person of interest has been missing for two years. He’s right there.
TIMOTHY D. SINI, Suffolk Co. Police Commissioner, 2015-17: We were, at the time, investigating several missing persons, and we believe that those missing persons were not missing persons but homicides by MS-13.
NARRATOR: Then one night, a Tuesday, September 13th, 2016, there was a brutal attack next to an elementary school in Brentwood.
NEWSCASTER: A high school student found dead in this neighborhood last night on the eve of─
TIMOTHY SINI: I was in my den. I remember exactly where I was sitting. And we first received a briefing sheet on it because the injuries were so horrific that the first hypothesis was that it’s a motor vehicle crash, a hit and run.
NARRATOR: The victims were two teenage girls, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens.
Det. JOHN OLIVA: They were run over by vehicles. You know, they used machetes. They used baseball bats. They took it to a level that I don’t think anybody was ready for.
VICTOR RAMOS, Newsday: Their bodies were disfigured. One of them was found in the street, the other behind some homes. And there was no apparent, motive other than they might belong or be friends with members of some other gang.
PATRICK YOUNG, Central American Refugee Center: They were looking to settle the score with somebody. They didn’t find that person, and then they encountered these girls. One of them had apparently taunted them on Facebook, and so they killed her, and they killed her friend just because she was there with her.
LIZ ROBBINS, New York Times: This set off a chain reaction because for the very first time, you’re not seeing rival gang members being murdered, and that usually was what was happening. Now you have two girls just viciously and senselessly beaten and murdered. And that’s when the Suffolk County police went into overdrive.
NEWSCASTER: ─these two teenage girls, an act of savagery on this community, and they’re asking for the public’s help.
VICTOR RAMOS: Immediately after, police officers going door to door to try to get more information, and the police commissioner himself going out at one point and asking the community directly that if someone knew something, they were almost in an obligation to say something.
TIMOTHY SINI: ─to be enhancing our presence here to target those individuals.
NARRATOR: Getting the community to help would be challenging. Relations between the immigrant community and the Suffolk County Police have long been fraught.
NEWSCASTER: And announcing a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest─
SERGIO ARGUETA, S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth: Unfortunately, when you have a police department where the majority of law enforcement officers don’t reflect the communities they police, when you have a lack of connection to the populace that you serve, there’s a lack of empathy, if you will.
PATRICK YOUNG: The police department of Suffolk County had created a climate of fear. People in the county who were Latino felt intimidated in going to the police about Mara Salvatrucha. People said that they had been mistreated by the police and they were very frightened that rather than take their claim seriously, they’d simply be dismissed or maybe suspected of being in a rival gang.
NEWSCASTER: Four members of the MS-13 gang were charged in connection to the September slayings of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas.
NARRATOR: It would take six months for the police to find the suspected killers. In March 2017, law enforcement officials announced the manhunt was over. Among those arrested that day was Jairo Saenz, a young Salvadoran who had arrived with the surge of minors. Police say he became one of the leaders of a local MS-13 clique, the Westside Sailors.
NEWSCASTER: ─after a double murder, and according to law enforcement, most of the suspects arrested in these most recent cases were in the country illegally.
NARRATOR: We interviewed Jairo’s ex-girlfriend, a 16-year-old student at Brentwood High. To protect her, we’ve concealed her identity.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Did you know he was a gang member?
EX-GIRLFRIEND: No. He─ when we first started dating, he was nice to me and everything. He would treat me good. He was respectful and everything. And then after months, he started changing. He was threatening my family. We went to the police, made a report. And then I got an order of protection, so he couldn’t get close to me or my family.
NARRATOR: Despite the restraining order against him, she says Jairo threatened to kill her if she didn’t go with him.
EX-GIRLFRIEND: He told me that I had to be with him. So, I left so he wouldn’t─ he wouldn’t kill my family.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Where did he take you?
EX-GIRLFRIEND: At first, he took me to a wooded area around here because no one was going to find me there. No one would go in there.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Was he with other kids?
EX-GIRLFRIEND: Yeah, he was with his friends. They would be there, making sure I wouldn’t leave. So, I was scared that I was going to die.
NARRATOR: Her parents filed a missing persons report. They feared Jairo had taken their daughter against her will.
She says for several weeks, she was moved between the woods and Jairo’s house. Eventually, she managed to escape and would discover that she was pregnant.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: How do you think the police handled your case?
EX-GIRLFRIEND: They basically didn’t do anything. My mom called the police officer. They─ they told me they would look for me. If they would’ve gone inside his house, they probably would’ve find me.
NARRATOR: The Suffolk County Police Department told us that they actively investigated her disappearance and even went to Jairo’s home at least twice.
NEWSCASTER: ─the gang MS-13 appeared in federal court in─
NARRATOR: Jairo Saenz is now awaiting trial along with five other members of the Sailor clique for the murder of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas. If convicted, he is eligible for the death penalty.
NEWSCASTER: Law enforcement from multiple Suffolk County gang fighting units pledging to stand behind a suffering community of school children.
TIMOTHY SINI: The savages who murdered Nisa and Kayla are now behind bars.
NARRATOR: Commissioner Sini would seize the moment.
TIMOTHY SINI: And if you’re an MS-13 gang member, take a look behind me. For every person here, there’s 10 more.
NARRATOR: Community advocates were skeptical.
SERGIO ARGUETA: Commissioner Tim Sini, in front of a helicopter, armed police officers─ he makes this grandiose announcement that for every officer that stands in front of those cameras, there are dozens and hundreds that are going to make the annihilation of MS-13 their number one priority.
TIMOTHY SINI: We have promised to eradicate MS-13 from our streets─
SERGIO ARGUETA: This idea that you’re going to sort of launch this repressive attack and you’re going to annihilate this gang─ violence meeting violence is not going to solve this issue.
TIMOTHY SINI: And we remain fully committed to finishing the job.
What I say to them is I am 100 percent committed, this department is 100 percent committed in bringing everyone to justice. And we will. This is not, “Oh, I hope we do.” We will. There’s no question about it.
NEWSCASTER: ─story that broke on Friday, four bodies found on Long Island. They appear to be linked to gang violence.
NARRATOR: A month after the press conference, MS-13 would send their own message. The attack came on a Tuesday night, April 11th, 2017.
GERALDINE HART, FBI Long Island Gang Task Force: The phone call came in from the chief of detectives in Suffolk County. And when they say four bodies, your thought process is, “Well, they came across four bodies, almost like a killing field.” But no, that it was─ they were fresh bodies was astounding.
NEWSCASTER: ─that’s now plunging communities in Long Island into fear and terror. Why aren’t police─
NARRATOR: The bodies were of four young men who police believe had been lured into the woods by two girls. Mike Lopez, Justin Llivicura, Jefferson Villalobos and Jorge Tigre were ambushed. They were hacked to death by machete, the preferred weapon of MS-13.
LIZ ROBBINS, The New York Times: They were beaten. They were knifed. They had machetes put upon their bodies savagely.
NARRATOR: Relatives and friends didn’t know what had happened. When they received some worrying messages, they suspected the worst. They went to the police, but it was not easy. Some were undocumented.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: [subtitles] By the simple fact that you are undocumented, they treat you very poorly. There is a lot of arrogance. There is a lot of racism.
NARRATOR: While some family members were asked to fill out a missing persons report, others organized a search party.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was worried because Mike always answered my messages. He always talked to me. He always answered. And unfortunately, that day he never answered.
NARRATOR: The brother of one of the victims discovered the bodies.
LIZ ROBBINS: He calls his father, crying, hysterical, and his father is still in the police precinct, and says, “Dad, I found them. He’s dead. They’re dead.”
NARRATOR: Jorge Tigre was 18 when he was killed. His family says that for months, MS-13 had been harassing him. His mother, an Ecuadorian immigrant who cleans houses for a living, would not talk about MS-13, but she told us about their lives.
JORGE TIGRE’S MOTHER: [subtitles] I came from a very poor family. I came to this country wanting to improve my kid’s life.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: [subtitles] Talk to me about your son. What was he like?
JORGE TIGRE’S MOTHER: [subtitles] He was a really good kid. He worked hard. [weeps] I don’t want to remember because it’s really hard. And no one is going to give me my son back. No one.
TRUMP TWEET: The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: I’m talking about illegal immigrants that were here that caused tremendous crime, that have murdered people, raped people. They’re getting the hell out or they’re going to prison. And so many─
NARRATOR: A week after Jorge Tigre and the three others were murdered, President Trump would make MS-13 a key exhibit in support of his immigration agenda.
JEFF SESSIONS, Attorney general of the United States: We are not going to allow them to take over a block, a corner of our communities─
JOHN KELLY, White House Chief of Staff: They are utterly without laws, conscience, or respect for human life. They take the form─
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: The last, very weak administration allowed thousands and thousands of gang members to cross our borders and─
SERGIO ARGUETA: I knew they were going to capitalize on the narrative they’d been promoting the entire election to sow division among the people of this country.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: We’ve seen the horrible assaults and many killings all over Long Island─
SERGIO ARGUETA: I knew that they were going to use this particular case to fuel that narrative. And that’s exactly what happened.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: And we’re sending them the hell out of our country─
NARRATOR: We requested interviews with President Trump, his chief of staff, John Kelly, and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. They declined.
But Sessions’ number two, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, agreed to talk about the focus on MS-13.
ROD ROSENSTEIN: 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 pose a danger to American citizens are removed as quickly as possible.
NARRATOR: In late April, two weeks after the quadruple homicide, Rosenstein’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would accept an invitation to Suffolk County.
NEWSCASTER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Long Island, New York─
Rep. PETER KING (R), New York: I called the attorney general. His office called me back a day or two later and asked me if I could arrange to have him come in. And I said, “Yeah. Absolutely.” That was sending a signal to all of the federal officials involved that this was now going to be a top priority within the Justice Department.
VINCENT DeMARCO, Sheriff, Suffolk County, 2005-17: When the attorney general came, I think that really was a big boost to local law enforcement.
JEFF SESSIONS: I want to express my sincere appreciation for what you do─
VINCENT DeMARCO: It just felt like somebody cared and that he realizes that we are part of the solution and we’re not part of the problem.
JEFF SESSIONS: And the president did make a promise to make America safe again.
ROD ROSENSTEIN: Attorney General Sessions learned on that trip about the need for support from state and local law enforcement, who were looking for federal help in prosecuting the cases and in deporting gang members so they wouldn’t be around to commit more crimes.
NARRATOR: Attorney General Sessions also focused on the influx of unaccompanied minors.
JEFF SESSIONS: They recruit unaccompanied minors. And every time they convert a young person to their depraved life of violence and crime, they steal those young people’s future and our nation’s future.
JULIA SALTMAN: All of a sudden, Long Island is getting attention from Washington. So, when Jeff Sessions came, we were all on edge because we knew that things were going to change, that we’d become fearful of each other, become suspicious of each other.
PROTESTERS: Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here!
LIZ ROBBINS: Outside, there is a lot of protesting going on. And I spoke with protesters who said this is just going to open the floodgates for racial profiling, for anti-immigrant sentiment that’s already been brewing in this county.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They are illegals. Any other country, you would be at least jailed, probably shot on sight trying to cross that border.
PROTESTERS: No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!
WALTER BARRIENTOS, Make the Road New York: We were protesting the premise that these killings were reflective of the entire community because, we said, “You cannot use this to promote this us versus them, immigrants versus citizens, English speaking versus Spanish speaking sense of justice that does not serve our community.”
TIMOTHY SINI: Certainly, the current administration has done things that have made our job easier and harder at the same time. The rhetoric that is often used in the immigration context and the anxiety is not helpful because we want individuals to feel comfortable coming to police.
NEWSCASTER: The question is, where did this group come from? It appears related to our immigration policies, is that right?
─ They’ve been growing by leaps and bounds, and a lot of people associate that with these hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors.
IRMA SOLIS, N.Y. Civil Liberties Union: The rhetoric came from the national level, and it just percolated down.
─ And they’re as vicious as can be, and we’ve got to stop the political correctness, go after these guys and get them deported.
IRMA SOLIS: Once you begin to connect unaccompanied minors with MS-13, that connection is what then creates that frenzy, right, of “Now we need to do something about these unaccompanied minors.”
NARRATOR: In Suffolk County, they had already been focusing on unaccompanied minors.
NEWSCASTER: Schools are ground zero for this gang problem, and if the state doesn’t step in to do something─
NARRATOR: By late 2016, local law enforcement began to look more closely at the new arrivals in the schools. School resource officers, who are police embedded inside the schools, would be given criteria to identify potential gang members.
RESOURCE OFFICER: You really don’t see this guy anymore. You are going to see these guys. It’s going to be the kid in the skinny jeans and the polo shirt and maybe the Chicago Bulls cap.
NARRATOR: The criteria would be shared with the schools.
RESOURCE OFFICER: We have received more unaccompanied children─
MARIANA GIL, Asst. Principal, Bellport Middle School: They put on a presentation. They show images of bandanas, or bulls’ horns. And they tell us that those are items that if we see the students wearing or drawing that we should be on the alert because it’s related to a gang.
NEWSCASTER: ─parents are being very aware of what colors their teen students are wearing to school─
NARRATOR: And one by one, the students were called in to the principal’s office.
NEWSCASTER: ─a number of immigrant 15- and 16-year-old students were suspended on allegations of ties to the gang MS-13.
IRMA SOLIS: We started to hear from parents who have had their children suspended from school for allegedly engaging in gang activity, either making some gesture, hand gesture, or wearing a certain T-shirt with a logo on it.
SERGIO ARGUETA: I really think a number of these schools panicked. You may rationalize with all these reasons as to why you felt you had to label these kids or why you felt that they were gang members, right? I’ve heard things like, “Oh, well, they scribble 503 in their notebooks.” Duh. That’s the area code of where they come from.
NEWSCASTER: ─what got the three suspended, one wore a Chicago Bulls T-shirt to school─
NARRATOR: Among those identified early on was Jesus.
JESUS LOPEZ: [subtitles] The school had sent a paper that said that I had written MS-13 on my hand, but I knew that it wasn’t true. I had only written the name of my girlfriend on my hand. I didn’t write MS-13.
JULIA SALTMAN: He was disciplined for having written MS-13 on his arm. And he, you know, adamantly denies the charges. And also, his─ his school records show no─ no signs of─ of that at all. Like, there’s no paper trail or anything. There’s no documents indicating that this event ever happened.
NARRATOR: Then there was Jairo’s ex-girlfriend. School resource officers at Brentwood High suspected that her new boyfriend was a gang member.
EX-GIRLFRIEND: He got suspended in school for a shirt he was wearing. And we also got stopped by detectives, and they were accusing him of being a gang member.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Is your current boyfriend a gang member?
EX-GIRLFRIEND: No, he’s not a gang member.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: How do you know that? Tell me.
EX-GIRLFRIEND: He would never go out with friends or go out. He would go to work, from work to his house. Or else he would go to the school. He had good grades. He was a good student.
NARRATOR: Junior would also be suspected. In March, Huntington High School summoned his dad to a hearing.
JUNIOR: I cried because I didn’t know what they were going to tell my dad because I wasn’t even expecting it.
NARRATOR: The school accused him of displaying MS-13 gang signs and threatening another student, which Junior denies.
ARNOLD, George’s Employer: 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.
NARRATOR: School officials at Huntington and Brentwood declined to speak to us on camera, so we asked Tim Sini to discuss the criteria.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: What is the criteria?
TIMOTHY SINI: 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.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: But that’s what advocates and lawyers complain about. They say, “What if I suddenly showed up at school with a certain color shoe and didn’t know that that was the criteria, and then my son─”
TIMOTHY SINI: Yeah, we’re not rounding people up based on the color of shoe they’re wearing, and they know that.
NARRATOR: Over the course of a year, information compiled by school resource officers led to the suspension or discipline of up to a dozen teens.
But the police knew that throwing gang signs or drawing MS-13 graffiti in a notebook was not a crime, so they looked for other ways to tackle the issue. They turned to ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Why do you need to even bring in ICE, because the evidence isn’t strong enough?
TIMOTHY SINI: 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.
NEWSCASTER: A new crackdown on gangs in our area. Department of Homeland Security and ICE say that they have arrested more than three dozen─
NARRATOR: Beginning in the summer of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security began a major operation against MS-13 on Long Island. It was dubbed Operation Matador. We spoke to Angel Melendez, the special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security investigations.
ANGEL MELENDEZ, Special Agent in Charge, ICE: Matador. The symbol of the MS-13 that they utilize is a bull or the horns. But there’s three stages to a bullfight, and the matador comes into the third stage to end the bullfight.
NEWSCASTER: ─a gang crackdown focused here on the island. We’ve just learned that─
NEWSCASTER: Police say 45 gang members, including 39 linked to that notorious gang, have been arrested in Long Island.
NARRATOR: In the middle of the crackdown, President Trump himself came to Long Island to show his support for law enforcement.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: We cannot accept this violence one day more!
NEWSCASTER: This has been a month-long operation targeting MS-13.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: And when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see ‘em thrown in rough─ I said, “Please don’t be too nice.”
NEWSCASTER: Depending on status, they can also be subject to immediate removal from the country.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you, and we will deport you.
NEWSCASTER: ─HSI. For them, this is not the end but the beginning of the crackdown on MS-13.
NARRATOR: Operation Matador relied on a series of ICE “gang memos.” The information in many of them came from school resource officers. We obtained copies of several of them. In one, Junior was identified as an active MS-13 gang member.
JUNIOR: [subtitles] I’m not a gang member. I’m a church-going young man.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: [subtitles] Have you ever committed a crime?
JUNIOR: [subtitles] Never. And I never will. I don’t even have any criminal record.
NARRATOR: Four days after Junior’s gang memo was drafted, several black vehicles followed him on his way to church.
ARNOLD: I got a phone call from George and he said that they took Junior. They said, “We’re taking the boy. We’re government.”
NARRATOR: In another memo, Jesus was accused of associating with MS-13 members and being part of the gang himself.
JULIA SALTMAN: [reading] “Lopez was observed having MS-13 written on his arm by Huntington High School administration, assistant principal, as well as school resource officer, Suffolk County police officer.”
NARRATOR: In late June, ICE came looking for him at the restaurant.
JULIA SALTMAN: A truck was waiting for him in the back of the restaurant, and when he walked out of work, they picked him up. They took them out so fast.
NARRATOR: Worried he’d be deported, she hired a lawyer.
ADAM TAVARES, Immigration Attorney: These MS accusations didn’t make any sense to me. He was not criminally involved in anything. It was perplexing.
NARRATOR: His lawyer saw problems with Jesus’s gang memo.
ADAM TAVARES: [reading] “Polanco has been identified as an MS-13 member by the Suffolk County Police Department gang unit.”
MARCELA GAVIRIA: What do you think of this memo?
ADAM TAVARES: Number one, there’s various mistakes on it. His name is not Polanco. The other thing that─ that was shocking to me was the fact that there was no evidence provided. That was literally the only two pages they provided for me.
NARRATOR: We then asked ICE about mistakes and discrepancies in another gang memo.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: That’s an ICE memo though, right? That’s what it looks like?
ANGEL MELENDEZ: Yeah. That’s a memo.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: So, on this one, it says that this individual─
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE VOICE: I’m sorry. We can’t comment on anything case-specific. So─
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Well, but I have to ask this question. It says here that he had 503 written all over his notebook, but in the school files of this individual, it says that there was only one 503 drawn in the notebook, not written all over the notebook. Do you understand why there’s a discrepancy?
ANGEL MELENDEZ: I can see where─ what you’re─ what you’re seeing and what─ you know, I’m seeing it, but like I said, it’s─ you know, we don’t─ not all the information known to us is provided in these documents, and I don’t go into the detail of these pending litigation matters.
NARRATOR: Operation Matador led to the roundup of around 60 unaccompanied minors, many from Long Island. Those who were still under 18 were then sent to high-security detention centers around the country. It was part of a new directive by the Trump Administration. All unaccompanied minors arrested on gang-related allegations would be placed in the most secure facility available for minors.
WALTER BARRIENTOS, Make the Road New York: They get labeled dangerous people and they get sent across the country to high-security prisons simply because of one suspicion. We think that these young people should be treated just the way that any other young person should be treated, which is they should have due process.
NARRATOR: Some of the minors were sent to Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodland, California. But others, like Junior, were taken to Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center in Virginia.
ARNOLD: They ended up sending him down to Virginia. And George said, “Arnold,” he says, “they─ they have my son.” And I said, “Well, give me the number. Let me call and find out what’s─ what’s going on here.”
NARRATOR: They called Junior’s immigration lawyer, Dawn Pipek Guidone. It was the first she’d heard that Junior had been picked up.
DAWN PIPEK GUIDONE, Immigration Attorney: Despite the fact that I was attorney of record on all immigration documents, before I was even notified, he was transferred down to Virginia to a secure facility.
NARRATOR: Junior was held for months without a hearing or being able to post bond.
GEORGE: [subtitles] I don’t know what the accusation is. I don’t know why he’s there. I don’t know. He’s been there for months, and I can’t figure out why they arrested him.
NARRATOR: With the help of Junior’s immigration lawyer, they reached out to the New York Civil Liberties Union, an organization that was already fielding scores of similar calls.
PHIL DESGRANGES, N.Y. Civil Liberties Union: During the summertime, 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.” 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.
NARRATOR: That summer, the NYCLU took on Junior’s case.
PHIL DESGRANGES: 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. 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: [subtitles] You can never see the sun or the moon. I was desperate. In my desperation, I made a lot of mistakes. I tried to kill myself.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: [subtitles How?
JUNIOR: [subtitles] 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.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: [subtitles] Show me your arm.
JUNIOR: [subtitles] 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.
NARRATOR: Junior was finally stepped down from Shenandoah to a less restrictive facility in New York, the Children’s Village. Junior’s lawyers asked for a hearing. And he would see a judge for the first time since his arrest.
Cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom, but we hired a sketch artist and obtained a recording of the hearing.
JUDGE: Please be seated. State your name for the record.
TRANSLATOR: [speaks in Spanish]
JUDGE: And how old are you now?
TRANSLATOR: Y que edad tienes el dia de hoy? 15
DAWN PIPEK GUIDONE: Junior actually finally got a court hearing. And 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.
I objected to it being entered into the record because it was an unsigned memo and the individuals that had prepared the memo were not available.
JUDGE: What you’re talking about is something I have no authority over. Unless I’m mistaken, I can’t order him released from Children’s Village. That is not within the scope of my authority.
DAWN PIPEK GUIDONE: It is a big runaround. Ironically, that hearing still doesn’t allow the judge to release them. It’s just a recommendation from the judge or a finding that they’re not a danger to the community, essentially.
NARRATOR: Although the judge concluded Junior was not a danger to the community, it was beyond her authority as an immigration judge to release him from detention.
NEWSCASTER: Three Long Island teenagers detained in California for months─
NARRATOR: Most of the other minors remained in detention, too, without any scheduled court dates to contest the evidence.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Is there, like, a parallel legal system that applies to immigrants that doesn’t apply to the rest of the people that hold U.S. passports?
PHIL DESGRANGES: The federal government seems to think so. But that’s clearly wrong. Under the Trump administration, the federal government really has been taking the stance that these kids have the burden to show that they’re not a danger, when in every other setting involving, you know, vulnerable minors, the burden would be flipped. It would be the government that would have to justify its actions. That’s against our laws. That’s against due process.
NEWSCASTER: ─arrested and accused of being gang members. But no evidence was ever presented.
NARRATOR: That summer, a lawyer with the ACLU went to a facility in California to meet one of the unaccompanied minors being held there.
JULIA HARUMI MASS, ACLU of Northern California: This teenager, who lived with his mother in Suffolk County─ he was arrested. He tried to ask to speak to his attorney, and they didn’t let him. They put him on a plane and they shipped him to Yolo County. And I really thought this was shocking and outrageous conduct, and I wanted to get involved.
NARRATOR: In August, she would file a class action lawsuit against the Trump administration on behalf of all the unaccompanied minors who had been detained on allegations of gang membership. Junior would be one of the 34 class members in the suit.
JULIA HARUMI MASS: The government can’t take away your liberty, they can’t lock you up, they can’t take away your property unless they give you a hearing in front of a neutral person like a judge, where you can hear the evidence against you and respond to it.
MARCELA GAVIRIA: Lawyers say that kids have been accused of having gang affiliation with very flimsy evidence and held in detention for months. Is that something that concerns you?
ROD ROSENSTEIN: I think that’s probably a very unfair characterization. The reason I say that is that what we see within the Department of Justice is an extraordinary level of due process that illegal aliens receive. That’s why we have a backlog of more than 600,000 cases. So based upon what I’ve seen, 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.
NARRATOR: But three months after the class action lawsuit was filed, a federal judge in northern California ruled against the Trump administration and sided with the ACLU.
NEWSCASTER: The ACLU had filed suit on the teens’ behalf. Now a judge has ruled in the favor of the ACLU lawsuit.
NARRATOR: The minors arrested by ICE would finally be given a hearing and a chance to contest the gang allegations.
JULIA MASS: Now, a couple months later, 28 hearings have been completed under this court order, and 26 of those kids were released. What it says to me is that at least 26 kids were arrested without sufficient evidence, and that absolutely goes contrary to, you know, what the Constitution requires and what I think most Americans would believe in.
NARRATOR: Junior was one of the 26 minors eventually released. His father and his father’s employer were waiting for him.
ARNOLD: I have Junior Mints! [laughs]
JUNIOR: Thank you.
[subtitles] They arrest people who don’t have anything to do with this. Because of them, someone can lose their life, just like I almost did because if I hadn’t been through all that, I wouldn’t have wanted to take my life.
ARNOLD: Oh, boy. I tell you, it’s a good day today.
JUNIOR: [subtitles] I only know that they have to do a better job. They have to investigate things better. I was in jail five, almost six months for something that I didn’t do, and that was unjust, too.
NARRATOR: But the class action ruling that led to Junior’s release did not apply to detainees who were 18 years or older, like Jesus. We found him at an adult detention facility in New Jersey, where he had already been held for five months.
JESUS LOPEZ: [subtitles] Honestly, it’s really terrible because there are bad criminals here, but they’re treated better than us. 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.
NARRATOR: In December 2017, Jesus was deported.
JESUS LOPEZ: [subtitles] 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.
NEWSCASTER: Thirty-eight of the suspected gangsters were pulled off our Long Island streets, but some of the arrests were in Maryland where authorities say MS-13 is also─
CARD: Of the more than 500 arrested in Operation Matador, 70 have been deported.
NEWSCASTER: Associates of the Sailors clique lured a victim to a secluded area and then stabbed the victim to death.
CARD: Since Matador, ICE conducted a new dragnet. They called it Raging Bull.
NEWSCASTER: More than 1,200 gang members have been convicted so far this year, according to U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions─
CARD: In his 2018 State of the Union address, President Trump called for tougher restrictions on unaccompanied minors entering the country.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: Gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as illegal unaccompanied alien minors. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.