US President Donald Trump‘s administration has declared war on the MS-13 gang. The “war on gangs” is a large-scale effort taking place in major cities across the US, with profound impacts on the communities being targeted.
Long Island, New York and surrounding areas have been hit especially hard. In the past year, the US government has arrested hundreds of people in this region as part of the crackdown on MS-13. Many of the arrests have taken place in immigrant neighbourhoods, targeting residents from Central America.
They were disappearing into the immigration detention system, and it often took parents days or weeks to even figure out where they were, much less to get them released and brought back home.
MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by migrants who fled civil unrest in El Salvador. Since then – and largely due to US deportation policies – the gang has spread to El Salvador and other parts of Central America, as well as several cities across the US.
The gang has also become more visible in recent years in the US, gaining national notoriety after a string of murders in Long Island and the Washington, DC, region.
In Long Island’s Suffolk County, MS-13 was linked to at least 17 killings in 2016 and 2017.
On a visit to the county last year, Donald Trump used those murders to announce a federal crackdown on the gang, and also call for stronger immigration policies.
He claimed MS-13 violence was the result of “weak borders”, suggesting gang members had been allowed to sneak into the US as unaccompanied minors – a term given to children who cross the US border alone – often to escape gang violence in their home countries.
“You don’t blanket an entire community and project this issue onto every young person, tying it in to immigration status and the unaccompanied minors. You don’t talk about those things in tandem,” says Sergio Argueta, founder of STRONG Youth, a local gang prevention programme.
In May 2017, local police in the region partnered with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target, arrest and deport MS-13 members as part of a joint operation known as “Operation Matador”.
Since then, the US government says it has arrested at least 239 people linked to MS-13. It is unclear how many of those remain detained or have been deported.
“They were disappearing into the immigration detention system, and it often took parents days or weeks to even figure out where they were, much less to get them released and brought back home,” says lawyer Paige Austin. Austin was one of the lawyers that worked on a lawsuit regarding the haphazard detainment of unaccompanied minors in the Long Island area last year.
So is the so-called war on gangs really about MS-13?
Correspondent Natasha del Toro and the Fault Lines team travelled to Long Island to meet some of the hidden victims of the crackdown – exploring how, in many cases, unaccompanied minors have been targeted and detained, without sufficient evidence to tie them to MS-13.
We also examine the relationship between ICE and local police, and how that partnership has spread fear in immigrant communities – leaving young, Central American teenagers in particular feeling trapped between a gang and the US government.