Investigations of US Coast Guard, MS-13 Win John Jay Justice Reporting Awards

Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations and ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier earned top honors for their work in the nation’s most prestigious annual competition for criminal justice reporting. They’ll receive the awards at a dinner Feb. 21.

Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations, and Hannah Dreier of ProPublica are the winners of the 14th annual John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim 2019 Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting, Karol V. Mason, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, announced Monday.

“The enterprise and hard work of these journalists paid off with some powerful criminal justice stories,” said President Mason. “Independent reporters and the thorough investigations they conduct are a cornerstone in protecting the freedoms and rights of all Americans.

“In addition, these Harry Frank Guggenheim Award winners make clear the continuing importance of media in helping Americans understand today’s criminal justice challenges.”

The prizes, administered by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), publisher of The Crime Report, recognize the previous year’s best print and online justice reporting in a U.S.-based media outlet between November 2017 and October 2018. Winning entries in each of the two categories share a cash award of $1,500 and a plaque. Runners-up (see below) receive certificates of Honorable Mention.

The 2019 Winners:

 Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler, reporting for Type Investigations (formerly The Investigative Fund) has won the 2019 John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Single-Story Category) for “The Coast Guard’s Floating Guantánamos,” an investigation of the little-known practice of detaining low-level drug smugglers under reportedly inhumane conditions on U.S. Coast Guard cutters offshore. His reporting was originally published by The New York Times Magazine and then amplified with new reporting in collaboration with The Current on CBC, Canada’s national broadcasting network.

Wessler’s year-long investigation involved culling thousands of pages of court filings and interviewing or corresponding with more than two dozen former detainees in U.S. prisons and in Ecuador. The result was “an entirely original and shocking story of government overreach,” commented one of this year’s jurors. Editor Esther Kaplan said the Coast Guard, “seemingly” in response to Wessler’s reporting, has since proposed using a dedicated prison ship to hold detainees, and she noted Canada has launched an investigation into allegations of mistreatment.

Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier of ProPublica won the 2019 John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Series Category) for her multi-part and multi-media investigation of flawed federal and local law enforcement practices in the struggle against the notorious MS-13 gang. Her first story, “A Betrayal,” published in collaboration with New York magazine, chronicled the tragedy of Henry, a teenager who had helped police arrest fellow gang members only to have his life endangered when law enforcement turned over his file to immigration authorities.

Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier

A second story, “The Disappeared,” in partnership with Newsday and This American Life, described the failure by local law enforcement to adequately investigate the murder by the gang of 15-year-old Miguel. Both cases illustrated the “carelessness and indifference” of authorities in dealing with the casualties of America’s stepped-up campaign against MS-13, said ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg in his nomination letter.

Both stores can be downloaded here.

Dreier’s articles had “extraordinary impact,” Engelberg added, noting that the Suffolk County, N.Y., police had launched an investigation into the mishandling of the investigations into the deaths of Miguel and others. “Hundreds of readers reached out to Henry offering jobs and a home…the Department of Homeland Security opened a civil rights investigation, and ICE said it would stop creating detailed gang memos.”


Two compelling investigative pieces from The Marshall Project (TMP) tied for this year’s Runner-Up place in the single-story category

 Alysia Santo was honored for a path-breaking year-long investigation into the operation of state victim compensation funds, and Joseph Neff earned the award for his investigation into the wrongful conviction, exoneration—and its tragic aftermath—of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled half-brothers found innocent of a rape-murder charge after spending 30 years on North Carolina’s Death Row.

Alysia Santo
Alysia Santo

Alysia Santo

Alysia Santo’s story, “The Victims Who Don’t Count,” was published in USA Today and reprinted in 20 regional newspapers; and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting broadcast a 25-minute radio story on 460 public radio stations. Her exposé “showed for the first time that the rules governing the disbursement of victim’s compensation disproportionately hurt black crime victims,” TMP Editor Bill Keller said in his nomination letter.

Joseph Neff

Joseph Neff’s story, “The Price of Innocence,” which also appeared in The New York Times, explored how the two brothers were exploited by lawyers and supposed advocates after they were released.

Joseph Neff

Joseph Neff

Follow-ups on the story by WRAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham, helped draw attention to their plight and led to an investigation by the North Carolina State Bar.

Not only did Neff’s reporting bring to light “one of the worst” examples of exoneree exploitation, but it highlighted a previously un-reported nationwide issue, Keller said: “Few states offer any post-release services or protection to the innocent, (and) those with disabilities or dysfunctional families shouldn’t have to rely on a diligent reporter to obtain the protection they need.”

Madeleine Baran, et al.

A team of investigative reporters and producers at American Public Media Reports was awarded the Runner-Up prize in the Series Category for their 11-episode project investigating the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man in Mississippi who is on Death Row for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. Based in Mississippi for nearly a year, the team produced their series for the second season of “In the Dark,” revealing misconduct by the local district attorney, as well as a 25-year pattern of malfeasance that included systematically striking African Americans from jury trials.

Madeline Baran

Madeline Baran

“Our reporting reached millions of people and sparked conversations about the power of prosecutors, and the ways in which prosecutors can abuse that power,” wrote APM Reports editor Catherine Winter in her nomination letter, noting that the “In the Dark” podcasts have been downloaded by more than 31 million people. APM reporter Madeleine Baran will receive the Honorable Mention certificate in the name of APM’s 10-person reporting team.

 Prize Jury

 The jurors for this year’s prize were:

  • Alexa Capeloto, Associate Professor, John Jay College
  • Joe Domanick, Associate Director, CMCJ;
  • Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists;
  • Ann Givens, of The Trace;
  • Katti Gray, contributing editor, The Crime Report;
  • Mark Obbie, a criminal justice writer and former executive editor of American Lawyer; and
  • Spencer Woodman of The Chicago Reader (co-winner of the 2018 Journalism Prize in the Single-Story Category) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Wren Longno served as Administrator of this year’s awards.

Dinner Feb 21

The awards will be presented February 21, 2019 at a dinner in New York City, held in conjunction with the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

The dinner will also honor pioneer podcasters Sarah Koenig of Serial and Brittany Packnett of Pod Save the People as this year’s “Justice Media Trailblazers.”

Reservations for the dinner can be made here.

The awards will be presented by John Jay President Karol Mason, Serial co-producer Julie Snyder, Brooklyn NY activist Blair Imani, and emcee Errol Louis of NY1.

John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium

The awards dinner is the cornerstone event of the 14th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City February 21-22, 2019.

The symposium, Violence in America: Myth and Reality, will examine challenges of the changing environment for criminal justice reform in 2019.

Speakers include:

  • George Gascon, San Francisco District Attorney;
  • The Hon. Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey Attorney General;
  • Sen. Larry Obhof, President, Ohio State Senate;
  • Daniel Isom, former St. Louis police chief;
  • Stephanie Ueberall, director of the Violence Prevention Program of the NYC Citizens Crime Commission; and
  • Prof. Issa Kohler-Hausmann, Yale Law School, author of “Misdemeanorland.”

The symposium, administered by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College (publisher of The Crime Report) is the only national gathering that brings together journalists, legislators, policymakers, scholars and practitioners for candid on-the-record discussions on emerging issues of U.S. criminal justice. The conference is open to the public, but a one-time fee of $25 is required for attendance at the on-the-record symposium.

For a full list of speakers, and to register for the conference, please click here

Overall support for the conference and fellowships comes from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and others.


Twenty-nine U.S. journalists from print, online and broadcast outlets have also been awarded Reporting Fellowships to attend the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, including five who have received special investigative fellowships from the Quattrone Center on the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for projects examining systemic issues in the justice system.

The unique fellowships are aimed at encouraging and promoting top-quality journalism on criminal justice. The Fellows were selected from a wide pool of applicants based on editors’ recommendations, and on investigative reporting projects underway or in the planning stage.

A full list of the John Jay/Guggenheim and Quattrone Reporting Fellows is below.


 (in Alphabetical Order)

 Ron Berler, freelance
Deven Clarke,
KSAT News12
Rachel de Leon,
Ron Denham,
Tim Eigo,
Arizona Attorney
Karl Etters, Tallahassee Democrat
Andrew Ford, USA Today Network
Dan Glaun, MassLive
Megan Guza,
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Gary Harki, Virginian Pilot
Emily Harris, Reveal/CIR
Katie Moore,
Topeka Capital Journal
Patricia Murphy,
KUOW Seattle
Tom Olsen,
Duluth News-Tribune 
Julie Reynolds Martinez, Voices of Monterrey Bay
Kayla Rivera, freelance
Elise Schmelzer,
Denver Post
Frank Schultz,
Janesville Gazette
Skyler Swisher,
South Fla Sun Sentinel
Almudena Toral,
Kathryn Varn,
Tampa Bay Times
Josh Vaughn, The Sentinel
Paula Ward.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Charlotte West,


 (in Alphabetical Order)

Josh Brodesky, San Antonio Exp News
Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Sainato,
freelance/The Guardian
Mary Sanchez, Flatland
Olivia P. Tallet, Houston Chronicle


The Shadow World of Immigrant Youth Detention

An estimated 13,000 young people are being held at immigrant youth detention centers around the U.S.–trapped in a shadowy world that evokes the penal practices of Communist-era authoritarian governments like East Germany, according to attorneys and youth advocates.

An estimated 13,000 young people are being held at immigrant youth detention centers around the U.S., trapped in a shadowy world that evokes the penal practices of Communist-era authoritarian governments like East Germany, according to attorneys and youth advocates.

The advocates, representing some of the leading U.S. groups working with immigrants, painted a stark and chilling portrait of the detention system for undocumented youth at a conference at John Jay College last week. They warned the abuses will increase as the Trump Administration continues to step up its immigration crackdown.

“It’s become another world,” said Paige Austin, staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s unbelievable that this system exists in the United States.”

Lewis Cohen, senior director of communications for the National Center for Youth Law, said that government-funded centers are now holding immigrant youths for months and even years.

“The government is gearing up for mass incarceration of children, children who don’t have protection of the U.S. juvenile justice system,” Cohen said.

The deep poverty and gang violence tearing through Central America sent some 60,000 unaccompanied minors into the U.S. in 2014 and similar numbers the two following years, said Angie Junck, supervising attorney and director of immigrant defense programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

At the same time, as a result of the influx of undocumented immigrants’ families from Mexico and other Latin American countries, “the number of youths at immigrant youth detention centers has grown twelve-fold over a 10- year period,” Junck said.

Cohen, Austin and Junck were speaking at a panel on immigrant youth at a conference on juvenile justice issues Friday, organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.

Among the most disturbing charges made by Cohen and the other panelists: Minor behavior problems were being used as an excuse to diagnose and then forcibly medicate immigrant children held in the detention centers.

Adults representing themselves as therapists question the children about their backgrounds in order to extract information to be passed along and used against them.

“It’s analogous to (how) East Germany used mental health to imprison children,” Cohen charged.

Meanwhile, U.S. detention policies towards immigrant youth were being influenced by rhetoric that falsely painted them all as dangers to the safety of Americans, the conference was told.

Laila Hlass, director of Experiential Learning with Tulane University School of Law, said the now-discredited myth of “super-predator” youth, used to impose harsh penalties on juvenile offenders in the 1990s, had effectively been revived to justify the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies.

She said undocumented Latin young people from Central America were being stereotyped as recruits or members of the notorious Central American  MS-13 gang, in the same way that U.S. juvenile offenders were branded as merciless killers following several high profile crimes, such as the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case.

Editor’s Note: The five youths convicted and imprisoned for the crime were since exonerated. (President Donald Trump, however, has continued to insist they are guilty.)

Using gang allegations that have no proof attached to them whatsoever, school resource officers (SROs) target kids in a “school-to-deportation pipeline,” ensuring that the high-school-age youths are referred to nonprofit centers contracting with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the conference was told.

There they languish, often without knowing the charges against them, in homes that are on lockdown with “caged play areas,” forced to take anti-psychotic medication if they demonstrate behavior problems and, when they turn 18, are taken to even more secure facilities holding those convicted of violent crimes.

Information is rarely shared with families or the public, with the youths having fewer rights than juveniles with U.S. citizenship.

Only successfully waged lawsuits are producing information and, the advocates hope, some possibility of change.

Austin of the New York Civil Liberties Union has represented kids who were living on Long Island when they were abruptly removed from their homes and sent to facilities such as Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

She and other advocates said that SROs and school employees can file reports with immigration authorities and terrorism watch centers, based on what a student wears to school or who he stands next to in the hallway or where he sits at lunch.

Such accusations are “treated as fact” by risk-adverse judges, who order the kids into these restrictive centers. Families are helpless to get answers once this happens.

“Kids end up in quicksand,” Austin said. “They say the kids can’t be released if they are dangerous and there’s no criteria for how they are deemed ‘dangerous.’ ”

Long Island, N.Y., became the national focus of the hot-button issue of immigrant-youth crime after a series of horrific murders there were connected to members of MS-13, a transnational gang formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by the children of refugees from El Salvador.

Many of them were deported to El Salvador and Honduras, the homelands of their parents, where they regrouped to create a gang closely linked with drug cartels and is held responsible for the highest homicide rates in Latin America⸺and in turn has established new branches in the U.S.

On Aug. 19, Josue Portillo, a teenager living in Central Islip, N.Y., pleaded guilty to his role in the murders of four young men. Portillo, 15 at the time of the murders, which were committed with knives, machetes, and tree branches, crossed into the U.S. from El Salvador illegally.

“Mr. Portillo’s grandmother had sent him to be with his mother on Long Island to avoid the MS-13 gang in El Salvador,” according to a story published in The New York Times. Once in Central Islip, however, he “was an active, willing participant in [MS-13’s] violent culture.”

President Trump has singled out Long Island as a hotbed of MS-13 crime, shining a glaring spotlight on law enforcement there as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived to the area to “support” police. In addition to the four young men murdered in 2017, two teenage girls were hacked to death in the street. Suffolk Country police said in 2017 that MS-13 was responsible for 17 murders.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


Exporting Murder: US Deportations and the Spread of Violence

Gangs like MS-13 are increasingly portrayed as threats to U.S. national security. But they are also the product of U.S. policies that deport criminal offenders back to Central America, where they have fueled the violence that has sent many refugees fleeing north, say two researchers.

The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders recently published a report documenting the threats that drive 500,000 Central Americans away from their homes every year. The three countries of the so-called Northern Triangle— Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—are among the most violent places on earth, with levels of violence that match the world’s deadliest war zones.

Many of those fleeing extreme violence in their homelands seek asylum in Mexico and the United States. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees and asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries has increased ten-fold since 2011. Notably, recent research by Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development finds that the massive inflow of unaccompanied minors across the southern border of the U.S. since the summer of 2014 has been due, in large measure, to violence in their communities of origin.

Within a public discourse that often portrays refugees as a threat rather than victims who deserve help and compassion, one part of this story has largely been ignored: U.S. border control policy—notably the deportation of criminal offenders back to their countries of origin—has played a critical role in the spread of violence in Latin America.

Although immigration rhetoric and policies have become increasingly hostile under the Trump presidency, it is fair to say that use of deportation is nothing new.

One pillar of immigration policy since the mid-1990s has been a tough stance on immigrants who have committed criminal offenses while in the U.S. Between 1996 and 2015, the U.S. deported 5.4 million individuals back to their homelands. Forty percent of these—2.2 million – had committed a felony while in the U.S. By deporting convicted felons, the U.S. returns home persons likely to have developed connections with transnational organized crime upon incarceration in the U.S., and who are likely to have refined their set of criminal skills.

Christian Amborsius

Christian Ambrosius

The case of El Salvador is particularly illustrative.

This small Central American country has a Salvadoran-born diaspora of 1.2 million people in the US, corresponding to a fifth of its total population of 6.3 million. Two rival gangs, the MS13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and the 18th Street gang, have turned El Salvador into one of the most violent places on earth. Both gangs originated on the streets of Los Angeles, home to a large Salvadoran community in California.

El Salvador is also the country that received one of the highest per capita inflows of deported offenders from the U.S. By 2015, the U.S. had deported 95,000 criminal offenders—an amount equal to 1.5 percent of that country’s total population.

Journalistic investigations have linked the deportations of convicted gang members to the spread of gangs in Central America. But can we be sure that the gang expansion was caused by deportations? Or did gangs simply adopt the style and habits seen in the U.S. and the media while inhabiting a longer tradition of violence in a country torn by social conflict and civil war?

Digging into Salvadoran data provides evidence that gang-related violence has indeed been exported from the U.S.

Gangs did not pop up everywhere in El Salvador. Instead, the rise of homicides after the 1990s is strongly linked to patterns of emigration and deportations. The areas of El Salvador that are suffering the most from gang violence are those whose expatriates settled in U.S. cities with high criminal activities, such as Los Angeles and the Washington, D.C. area.

Why is that? When the U.S. started to deport convicted gang-members in the mid-1990s, those deported were mainly children of Salvadoran migrants who had settled in poor urban neighborhoods where they had been socialized into existing gang cultures. Deportees then returned to the communities where they had been born. As a result, homicide rates skyrocketed precisely in these places. This did not happen when migrants settled in U.S. cities where they had no contact with gangs.

Many might argue that El Salvador is a specific case that does not permit general claims about the export of violence via deportations. In our recent research, we therefore looked for systematic evidence across a large sample of more than 120 countries since the early 2000s. We asked whether the number of persons deported from the U.S. to a particular country had a statistically discernable impact on the rate of homicides in that country.

David Leblang

David Leblang

Our findings are striking. Even after utilizing a very conservative statistical approach, we find that, on average, an additional inflow of 10 offenders per 100,000 persons translates into more than two additional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the receiving country. Importantly, we only found this effect for the deportation of criminal offenders; no similar impact was observed if we focused instead on non-criminal deportations.

To illustrate the magnitude of the effect, consider the case of Honduras.

Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world with a homicide rate in 2012 of 92 per 100,000 residents. Honduras also received one of the highest influxes of deported offenders that same year: 162 per 100,000 residents. Hence, our model assigns roughly a third of all homicides that year to the inflow of deported offenders.

Our results hold most robustly for the countries of Latin America. This occurs largely for two reasons. First, the deportation of convicted offenders is most relevant for Latin America in quantitative terms: almost 90 percent of all deported offenders over the period 1996 to 2015 were sent to Latin America. Second, the deportation of convicted offenders seems to fall on fertile grounds in many countries of Latin America: deportees are sent back to an environment where economic, political and social opportunities are likely limited.

It is also a region that has been characterized by historically high levels of social conflict and violence, and where criminal enforcement capacities of states are often weak.

The ‘Third Wave’ of Central American Immigration

Central America has seen three migration cycles over the last decades. In the 1980s, migrants fled civil wars between military governments and guerilla movements. In the 1990s and 2000s, the migration flow was dominated by Central Americans escaping poverty and the lack of employment opportunities at home.

Today, we are witnessing a third wave of immigration from Central America driven by violence. There is strong evidence that this violence has been fueled by the deportation of convicted offenders. This has several important policy implications. Not only does their deportation carry huge follow-up costs at migrants’ countries of origin, largely to be borne by innocent people. These policies are also ineffective in discouraging migration.

To the contrary: America’s export of offenders feeds a vicious migration cycle by further destabilizing countries that are already suffering from high levels of conflict and social exclusion.

Finally, these policies bear the risk of trans-nationalizing crime that may feed back into neighboring countries and back to the U.S. The most troubling example: the Central American gangs that have turned into a region-wide concern.

A sensible migration policy would not imprison and traumatize a new generation of innocent children as happened in the summer of 2018, but instead search for ways to help countries break the vicious migration cycle that haunts Central America.

Christian Ambrosius is a lecturer at the Institute for Latin American Studies and the School of Business and Economics at Freie Universität Berlin and currently visiting professor at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City. David Leblang is Ambassador Henry J. Taylor Professor of Politics and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. This essay is an expansion of an article by the same authors that previously appeared in the Washington Post. They welcome comments from readers.


Few Gang Members are Undocumented Immigrants: Report

While President Trump condemns illegal immigrants who come into the US as “gang members” and “criminals,” statistics show that only 0.09 percent of illegal immigrant detainees come from Central American gangs, according to AP. Instead, it’s often people fleeing gangs who are trying to get into the United States.

While President Donald Trump continues to condemn illegal immigrants who come into the US as “gang members” and “criminals,” federal data shows that only 0.09 percent of illegal immigrant detainees come from Central American gangs, reports the Associated Press.

Instead, it’s often people fleeing gangs who are trying to get into the United States.

President Donald Trump tweeted in June that “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be … pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.”

Yet very few gang members try to get into the United States. In fiscal year 2017, the US Border Patrol carried out 310,531 detentions of people who were in the U.S. illegally, but only 0.09 percent of them belonged to the gangs operating in Central America, according to US Customs and Border Protection statistics.

These findings are “not at all surprising” according to an immigration expert.

“The people coming to the US are fleeing gang violence (among other threats to their lives and human rights), they are not primarily the gang members themselves,” said Susan Akram, a clinical professor on immigration at Boston University school of law, in an interview with The Crime Report.

“As many reports have been documenting for years, the rise of gangs in Central America is a result of the development of violent gangs in the immigrant communities within the US–particularly LA–many of whom were deported to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where they had not lived since childhood,” she said. “Having no options for education or jobs, they maintained and expanded their gang activities and turned to extreme violence.”

And according to Akram, the US plays a part in the reason immigrants are fleeing.

“The US itself bears some of the responsibility for the causes of this flight,” she said.

Reasons include: its longstanding interventions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua that destabilized those countries governance during the 1980’s; the US’ exporting of its ‘border control’ to Central America, particularly Mexico, through such policies as Plan Frontera Sur and Plan Merida; the depression of wages and job opportunities caused by NAFTA and CAFTA; and the development of massive corporate agribusiness that has forced thousands of Central Americans off their lands and privatized their resources (particularly water).

Thus, America has an obligation to care for immigrants fleeing their homeland, she concluded.

Washington should “provide asylum to persons fleeing such kinds of persecution and harm, which the US is bound to through its treaty commitment under the US Refugee Protocol.”

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

MS-13 Gang Databases Sweep Up Innocent Youth: Report

Profiling young Latinos as “gang members”—often with little evidence beyond a suspect tattoo— has “devastating” consequences for individuals and their communities, according to a study by the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law.

Profiling young Latinos as “gang members”—often with little evidence beyond a suspect tattoo— has “devastating” consequences for individuals and their communities, according to a study by the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law.

Authors of the study concluded that databases and information-sharing among federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement often resulted in collecting names of individuals with no connection to MS-13, a notorious gang which has been associated with murders and drug dealings across the U.S., reports Voices of NY.

The study, based on a survey of 43 immigration lawyers and immigration advocates in New York State, notes that allegations of gang membership have been used to deny asylum or legal residents, and as a pretext to deny applications for benefits or to arrest immigrants.

A young person can be branded as a gang member just because he or she happens to know someone in a gang or connects to a gang member via social media, and the suspected name can be added to a gang database without knowing it, said Babe Howell, a CUNY law professor in a conference call discussing the study’s findings.

The study was co-produced by the CUNY School of Law Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic and the New York Immigration Coalition.

The authors called for setting “stringent” requirements for adding names to a  gang database, including limiting subjects to individuals 16 and over, and who have been convicted for violent offenses or gang-motivated felony offenses.

Criteria for inclusion should be published and publicly available, and periodic audits of databases by neutral third parties should be conducted, with a view to expunging names when new information becomes available.


Latino Immigrant Children Face Gangs, Fear of Deportation

Nearly 9,000 children who immigrated from Central America without an accompanying adult live in limbo on Long Island, where they face a minefield of hostile local residents, dangerous MS-13 gang members, and the constant fear of being sent back home.

The New Yorker investigates a humanitarian dilemma on Long Island, New York, where Central American children who immigrated illegally to the United States without an accompanying adult are caught between the violence of the MS-13 gang and the fear of deportation. More than 120,000 children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala arrived at the southern border of the U.S. between 2014 and the end of 2016. Ranging in age from 6 to 17, they made the journey without their parents, traveling along routes controlled by smugglers, thugs, and crooked cops. The risks were outweighed by the dangers of remaining at home, where gang wars raged. The U.S. government allowed the children to enter the country, but they were immediately placed in deportation proceedings.

About a third of them would eventually be granted some form of asylum. In the meantime, the government tried to place the children with family members who already lived in America, but many communities didn’t want the newcomers. The hostility was especially pronounced on Long Island, which since 2014 has received 8,600 children. Most of them were placed in Central Islip and Brentwood, in Suffolk County, where they are subjected to in school and on the streets to harassment from MS-13 members. “These new kids are just dropped into this mess,” a teacher in Brentwood said. Paul Pontieri, the mayor of Patchogue, said, “Take a thirteen-year-old who isn’t an English speaker. Unless he’s so bright, and unless his family life at home is incredibly structured, there’s no way he’s getting through high school.” He said, “Fear, at a certain point, becomes anger. You can see it building up.”


DEA Boss Repudiates Trump’s ‘Rough’ Advice for Cops

Chuck Rosenberg joins the chorus of law enforcement pros who decry the president’s suggestion that cops ought to get rough with crime suspects. In a memo to DEA employees, he said, “I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong.”

The nation’s top narcotics officer repudiated President Trump’s remarks urging police to be rough with crime suspects, issuing a memo saying Drug Enforcement Administration agents must “always act honorably” by maintaining “the very highest standards” in the treatment of criminal suspects, reports the Wall Street Journal. Chuck Rosenberg, who as acting DEA chief works for the president, told agency personnel to disregard any suggestion that roughing up suspects would be tolerated. Rosenberg is a longtime Justice Department official who twice served as a U.S. attorney in the George W. Bush administration.

“I write to offer a strong reaffirmation of the operating principles to which we, as law enforcement professionals, adhere,” Rosenberg says in the memo, titled “Who We Are.” “I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try.” On Friday, Trump spoke to police officers in Long Island, N.Y., to commend their efforts against the MS-13 gang. Trump told them, “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice.” His comments prompted laughter and applause from the police audience. Many police organizations have decried the remarks. The White House, which has said Trump was joking, declined to comment on the Rosenberg memo.


Trump to Visit NYC Suburb to Tout Deportation Program

His appearance in Brentwood, Long Island, which has been beset by violence linked to the MS-13 gang, will be used to highlight his efforts to stem illegal immigration and boost deportations.

President Trump will travel to Brentwood, N.Y., Friday afternoon to use the Long Island town beset by gang violence to highlight his efforts to stop illegal immigration and boost deportations, reports Reuters. Trump will highlight his administration’s push to deport members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, better known as MS-13. He has blamed the gang’s broad reach in the U.S. on lax enforcement of illegal immigration from Central America. “It’s going to be a very forceful message about just how menacing this threat is, and just how much pain is inflicted on American communities,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the trip.

Trump’s visit comes as his Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to El Salvador to highlight progress on the gang crack-down. MS-13 took root in Los Angeles in the 1980s in neighborhoods populated with immigrants from El Salvador who had fled civil war. The Justice Department has said MS-13 now has more than 10,000 members across the U.S. Brentwood is 30 miles from Queens, where Trump grew up. MS-13 was behind the murders of two teenage girls in that suburb last September and four young men in a park in April. There have been 17 murders on Long Island tied to the gang since January 2016, police say.


7 Things the Trump Administration Gets Wrong about MS13

One of Latin America’s most violent gangs has become a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s campaign to go after the criminal activities it says are committed by undocumented migrants—but the facts it is relying upon are open to question.

One of  Latin America’s most violent gangs has become a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s campaign to go after the criminal activities it says are committed by undocumented migrants—but the facts it is relying upon are open to question.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to New York to warn members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13, that “we are coming after you” in the aftermath of a series of deaths in Long Island tied to the gang.

But the verbal offensive by both the attorney general and President Trump, which ratcheted up earlier last month, as well as their statements on the origins and evolution of the gang, are for the most part false or misleading.

On April 18, Trump tweeted that the “weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama administration” allowed the MS13 to develop in several US cities. The current president also said that his administration has been expelling gang members at rates never seen before.

In addition, speaking to Fox News, the President stated that the gangs are made up of “illegal immigrants that were here that caused tremendous crime. That have murdered people, raped people — horrible things have happened. They’re getting the hell out or they’re going to prison.”

On the same day that Trump made these comments, Sessions expressed similar thoughts in a separate TV interview and in a speech he gave to an elite group of federal officials, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF).

Like Trump, Attorney General Sessions also blamed so-called “sanctuary cities,” which forbid local police forces from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, for facilitating the MS13‘s expansion.

As he had promised during his presidential campaign, upon assuming office Trump began threatening to cut federal funds to these cities if they refused to cooperate with ICE. Only a few of the more than 100 sanctuary cities have given up their sanctuary status. Others that are home to large migrant communities, such as San Francisco; Hyattsville, Maryland; Houston; and Los Angeles have defied Trump.

In addition, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly spoke about the MS13 at a public event held by George Washington University, in Washington, DC.

“They are utterly without laws, conscience, or respect for human life. They take the form of drug cartels, or international gangs like MS13, who share their business dealings and violent practices. Their sophisticated networks move anything and everything across our borders, including human beings,” Kelly said.

Each of these comments comes with its flaws, and at the very least distorts the reality and obscurs the strategies that should be followed to tackle the MS13 threat. In an effort to shed more light on this complex issue, InSight Crime has listed seven aspects of these statements in which the Trump administration is plainly mistaken.

1. Barack Obama’s immigration policies allowed the MS13 to expand across the United States

Trump blames former President Obama, but he may have been more correct if he had pointed the finger at Ronald Reagan. The MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs were established in the 1980s in Los Angeles. At the beginning, they were made up of young undocumented migrants that came to California escaping the civil war in El Salvador. They were tuned in to rock music and took part in small-scale drug dealing. Some of them had received military or guerrilla-style training.

As Salvadoran news outlet El Faro wrote about the origins of the MS13, very soon the gang began to articulate a violent ideology based by and large on opposition to rival gangs, most notably the Barrio 18.

The gangs migrated to the US East Coast towards the end of the 1990s, as part of the migration waves that saw Latino communities looking for jobs elsewhere in the country. By the beginning of the 2000s, the MS13 began to catch the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Even the fact sheet the US Department of Justice (DOJ) released on April 18 to support Sessions’s statements clearly says that the MS13 was born and began to expand before 2009. “The MS13 has been functioning since at least the 1980s,” the report states.

In 2004, under the George W. Bush administration, the FBI created a special unit targeting the MS13, after members of the gang committed some atrocious homicides.

In 2006, Brian Tuchon, then-head of the FBI’s special unit, told Salvadoran news outlet La Prensa Gráfica that the gang had settled in 42 US states, and had begun to participate in drug trafficking, chiefly as local distributors. Since that time, the FBI and the US State Department have maintained that gangs like the MS13 do not play an important role in the international drug trafficking chain.

The MS13‘s expansion is directly related to the evolution and migration of Central American communities into the United States, and also with the large-scale deportation campaigns that began towards the end of the Bill Clinton administration and intensified during George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

2. US law enforcement has done nothing against the MS13

“It is a serious problem and we never did anything about it, and now we’re doing something about it,” President Trump told Fox News during the April 18 interview.

This is false. In addition to several FBI operations, local police forces and attorneys from counties across the states of Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and California carried out several law enforcement actions against MS13 members during the previous decade.

To give a few examples, federal cases brought by attorneys under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia led to blows that decimated the MS13 cells on the US East Coast for a decade.

In 2007, Greenbelt’s federal court sentenced some 20 members of gangs based in Maryland, DC and Virginia to several years in prison as part of an organized crime case that included charges of homicide, drug possession, illegal use of weapons and rape, among others. Among the defendants was Saúl Hernández Turcios, alias “El Trece,” one of the MS13 leaders in El Salvador.

Again, the DOJ report on the MS13 appears to contradict the president’s words. The fact sheet states: “Through the combined efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement, great progress was made diminishing or severely disrupted the gang within certain targeted areas of the US by 2009 and 2010.” That is, during the Obama administration.

3. More gang members are being deported from the United States than ever before

In his tweet, Trump said that “we are removing [gang members] fast.” Yet there is no data to support this claim. The ICE deportation figures available to the public do not show data from the first three months of 2017, when Trump has been in office. Up until the end of 2016, the percentage of gang members compared to the total deported population was minimal: 0.8 percent, that is, 2,057 individuals “with confirmed or suspected connections to gangs” out of a total of 240,255 deported people that year.

Ever since 2011, when the Obama administration announced that it would prioritize deportations for undocumented migrants with criminal records or ties to illegal groups, Washington has been juggling two distinct figures: the number of people accused or convicted of a crime, and the number of people whose only crime has been violating migration laws by illegally entering the United States. This, according to many pro-immigrant organizations, has only further criminalized migrant communities.

There is no data showing that deportations carried out during the Trump administration have targeted more gang members, and Central American police sources have told InSight Crime that this is not the case.

4. The MS13 is recruiting more in the United States in an attempt to revive defunct ‘clicas,’ and to commit more violent acts

Sessions told OCDETF that “Because of an open border and years of lax immigration enforcement, MS13 has been sending both recruiters and members to regenerate gangs that previously had been decimated, and smuggling members across the border as unaccompanied minors.”

This is, in part, correct. As InSight Crime recently reported, between 2014 and 2016 the FBI and local authorities detected an increase in homicides attributable to the MS13 in Virginia; Boston; and Long Island, New York.

Testimony from a RICO case opened in Boston in 2015 against various MS13 “clicas,” or cells, indicates that orders from the gang’s jailed leadership in El Salvador may have been behind some of these homicides. The court documents also mention a meeting between clica leaders in Richmond, Virginia, in which a spokesperson known as “Ricky” relayed the order to expand the MS13‘s East Coast program.

Federal investigations revealed that some of the Boston homicides could be linked to this order. It is also true that the recent homicides were brutally executed, which is characteristic of the MS13 in Central America.

But Sessions’ statement also distorts the truth. Once again, there is no information that allows the attorney general or Trump’s administration to affirm that these murders are attributable to the arrival of undocumented minors, who began coming to the United States in larger numbers in 2014. In fact, there is no study by federal agencies or academic institutions that proves that there is a significant number of gang members among these minors. On the contrary, a large portion of these undocumented youths who come seeking asylum claim that they are fleeing gangs in the Northern Triangle.

Moreover, there is no evidence that the migratory patterns of gang members are different than those of any other group of migrants, or that they are moving in accordance with a grand plan forged by the MS13‘s Salvadoran leadership to revitalize the organization.

It is nonetheless true that in 2007 the MS13 started to resume recruitment activities and indiscriminate use of violence in some US cities, according to FBI officials who have studied the gang for at least two decades. But these efforts are not directly related to Obama’s migration policies. David LeValley, who until last November was chief of the FBI’s criminal investigations unit in Washington, explains that there have been attempts by the MS13 to regain strength following the RICO prosecutions between 2006 and 2010. This has been occurring “since 2007, after real successes and after the leadership had been decimated,” the FBI agent told InSight Crime in an interview last year.

In more recent years, the MS13 has largely been following the organization’s dynamics in Central America. This includes the gang truce between the MS13Barrio 18 and the Salvadoran government during the presidency of Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), and the subsequent declaration of war by current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

5. Sanctuary cities are more hospitable to the MS13, and the gang can operate freely in them

Sessions told OCDETF that sanctuary cities “dangerously undermine [the process of fighting gangs]. Harboring criminal aliens only helps violent gangs like MS13. Sanctuary cities are aiding these cartels to refill their ranks and putting innocent life — including the lives of countless law-abiding immigrants — in danger.”

This is false. There is no evidence that the “sanctuary” status of certain cities — those that refuse to allow local police to assist ICE in locating and deporting undocumented migrants — has any effect on their crime rates. Evidence indicates that, as in much of the United States, crime rates in sanctuary cities have been decreasing for years. In fact, some studies suggest that crime indicators are actually lower in migrant communities.

Furthermore, some successful models for combating gangs have been carried out in cities with a strong migrant presence, where the police established ties with such communities in order to counteract the influence of the MS13 or Barrio 18. This has been at the root of anti-gang operations in, for example, Fairfax, Virginia; Montgomery, Maryland; and Washington, DC, where InSight Crime has carried out investigations over the past two years. Between 2009 and 2014, gang-related homicides in Fairfax and Montgomery fell to nearly zero.

6. The MS13 represents a threat comparable to Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, and the Italian mafia

Attorney General Sessions compared the MS13 to Colombian cartels and the Italian “mafia.” Yet years of investigations into the MS13 and the Barrio 18 have shown that the participation of both gangs in the regional drug trade is minimal. In some cases, their activity is limited to controlling local markets.

Even the US State Department has recognized on multiple occasions that Central American gangs are not “important actors” in international drug trafficking. In contrast to the old Colombian cartels, their modern Mexican counterparts or intermediary criminal organizations, neither the MS13 nor Barrio 18 have ever had the economic or political power to obtain the protection needed to run large-scale drug trafficking activities in Central America. Nor have they been able to establish strong networks in the United States beyond small local cells.

In general, the number of big trafficking cases associated with MS13 clicas in Central America or the United States is small. And they typically involve gang units that, due to their location or leadership, have pre-existing connections to drug traffickers.

Apart from extortion, which is tightly regulated by the gang leadership, the MS13‘s remaining criminal activities depend largely on decisions made by the local clica leader.

7. A law enforcement solution alone is adequate to solve this problem

Both Trump and Sessions resorted to repeating misinformation that other officials — including Central American presidents, ministers and police chiefs — have used to justify heavy-handed anti-gang policies, which have only helped the MS13 and Barrio 18 to become more sophisticated as their members have been stuffed into prisons.

At the end of the day, the words of both officials are intended to link the recent homicides attributed to the MS13 in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia to Trump’s narrative, which he has used to criminalize migration and the Latino community in the United States.

The Crime Report is pleased to introduce a new content partner specializing in crime and security issues in  Latin America. The above is a slightly edited version of an article published last month in InsightCrime. Readers’ comments are welcome.


NY to Aid Long Island Suburbs Beset by MS-13 ‘Scourge’

Brentwood, Long Island, has become a hub of violence associated with MS-13, a gang with roots in Central America. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to travel there on Friday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo beat him to Brentwood by two days to announce an increase in state police undercover and uniformed operations in that area.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo traveled to Brentwood, Long Island, Wednesday to announce the creation of an anti-gang policing initiative to combat MS-13, the brutal transnational gang that he called “a current scourge” on the area, reports the New York Times. Most recently, the gang has been implicated in the murders this month of four young men whose bodies were discovered on the edge of a town park in the neighboring Suffolk County town of Central Islip. As part of the statewide initiative, the state police will increase undercover and uniformed operations in the area, adding 25 officers to the efforts of local police and an FBI task force to battle the gang, which has its roots in Central America.

MS-13 was blamed for 11 murders last year in Suffolk County, including those of two teenage girls who were brutally pummeled with machetes and baseball bats near a Brentwood elementary school in September. The violence has attracted national attention. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to visit the area on Friday to discuss gang violence. President Trump has said the threat raised by gangs justifies his administration’s tough proposals on immigration, and he cited MS-13 as a reason for building a wall at the Mexican border. Cuomo distanced his actions from those of the Trump administration. “We’ve been talking about this for the past couple weeks,” he said. “I can’t speak to what the attorney general is doing.”