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ProPublica Reporter Delves Into Covering MS-13 Street Gang


When President Trump talks about border security, he often mentions MS-13, a violent gang that got its start in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Here's the president talking to a crowd in South Carolina last night.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Democrats want open borders. They want anybody they want, including MS-13, pouring into the country.


KING: President Trump has said MS-13 is ravaging neighborhoods across the United States. And his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has portrayed the gang as a highly sophisticated and organized network.


JEFF SESSIONS: Transnational criminal organizations like MS-13 represent one of the gravest threats to American safety.

KING: But journalist Hannah Dreier has spent the last year reporting in depth on MS-13 for ProPublica, and what the Trump administration has been saying about the gang doesn't completely match up with what she's been seeing on the ground.

HANNAH DREIER: What I found is that MS-13 looks like a bunch of high school-age boys who are working menial jobs during the day and sometimes going to high school.

KING: High school-aged boys who were working during the day and sometimes going to school - over the age of 18, under the age of 18?

DREIER: A lot of them are minors. A lot of them are 16, 17. On Long Island, there are a couple cliques that are led by 17-year-olds.

KING: How big is MS-13? What is their membership like?

DREIER: So MS-13 is not a big gang at all. They're smaller than the Bloods, smaller than the Crips, smaller than the Latin Kings. There're about 10,000 members in the U.S., and that number has stayed constant for the past 10 years, so they're not even growing.

KING: You have a lot of thoughts on what we get wrong when we talk about MS-13. What does the Trump administration get right?

DREIER: Nobody is arguing with Trump when he says that this is a brutal and violent and merciless gang. The murders that they gang commits are almost staged to look like spectacular acts of terrorism. So they'll be, you know, four bodies stacked up in a park or a 15-year-old cut with machetes so deeply that his bones are scarred.

KING: So this gang is very violent. When the Trump administration talks about violence, they are accurate. What does the Trump administration get wrong about MS-13?

DREIER: So to hear Trump tell it, MS-13 is this shadowy gang that's organized across continents with major plans to disrupt the security of the United States border, and what I'm actually seeing is that this gang is settling, basically, high school beefs. So out on Long Island, there have been two dozen people who've been killed in the last two years or so by the gang, and a lot of those killings came back to, basically, trash talk in school hallways or small signs of disrespect.

KING: You spent a lot of time sort of embedded on Long Island. How does law enforcement feel about this gang?

DREIER: What homicide detectives tell me over and over again is that they're surprised by how baby-faced these killers are. They look even younger than they are. They look like preteens sometimes. One detective told me that he called them mighty munchkins because these are kids who haven't yet finished their growth spurts, but they team up together in the woods and wreak a lot of carnage.

KING: Mighty munchkins, huh?

DREIER: Mighty munchkins. They have a lot of nicknames for these kids because it is so bizarre. You know, in the media and - the White House put out a lot of pictures of MS-13 members that are really pictures from the '90s of - they're pictures of an older version of this gang that show older men with tattoos over their faces and chests. And when you go into what MS-13 looks like today, it's kids in polo shirts and skinny jeans hanging out with their friends in the woods, drinking juice.

KING: That makes me curious then about MS-13's larger ambition or their larger mission. You know, we hear about them as a criminal enterprise, as a gang, and so you think, well, they must be involved in the drug trade, for example; they must have an organizing principle. Are they involved in drug cartel violence, for example?

DREIER: MS-13 really doesn't have a role in the international drug trade, and one of the reasons for that, experts say, is because the gang engages in so much violence. They're almost too chaotic for the major cartels to work with. So the major cartels are purposefully avoiding MS-13, by and large, because this is a gang that's built around violence for violence's sake, and that is very bad for business if you're trying to be in the international drug trade.

KING: You've acknowledged and you've reported on this group's extraordinary level of violence. Do you think that this gang's threat to U.S. national security is overblown?

DREIER: I think that this gang is a real threat to some specific immigrant communities in places like Long Island and the suburbs of Washington, D.C., some places in Los Angeles, but it's not a gang that's focused on any global mission. And so to put it on par with a group like the Zetas - or I've even heard it compared to ISIS - seems way off base.

KING: You describe them as young, as baby-faced. Is there evidence that they're crossing the border, saying, I'm just another innocent kid fleeing violence, when what you really have is a hardened gang member?

DREIER: There's really no reason to think that MS-13 is doing anything like that. The administration says that people are posing as fake families at the border, but what officials haven't been able to show is any example of an MS-13 member trying that tactic.

KING: What does the Trump administration risk when it presents us with the view of this gang as maybe larger, maybe better organized, maybe more of a threat to the security of your average citizen than your reporting seems to suggest it actually is?

DREIER: Yeah. So if you don't really try to understand the threat, then you can't really fight it. And Trump right now is trying to sell this idea that MS-13 is this huge organization bent on sending children through the border to take over American cities, and so his response is to try to close the border more effectively. And what I'm seeing is that MS-13 is already in the United States. It was founded in the United States. Most of us MS-13's growth on Long Island seems like it's been driven by recruitment of kids who are already here or who came here and weren't in the gang. And so this focus on the border is distracting people from looking at how MS-13 actually operates and how the gang might actually be stopped.

KING: Hannah Dreier covers immigration for ProPublica. Hannah, thank you so much.

DREIER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF XANDER BROWN'S "ICARUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.