Teen Who Informed on MS-13 Arrested, Awaiting Deportation
He cooperated with the FBI. He was arrested by ICE.
Hannah Dreier has a report at ProPublica with the subhed, “The teenager told police all about his gang, MS-13. In return, he was slated for deportation and marked for death.” It’s an incredibly long feature that’s more exposition than report, making excerpting difficult.
But now, Henry wrote, he wanted to escape the life that had followed him from El Salvador. If he stayed in the gang, he knew he would die. He needed help.
He tore out the pages and hid them inside another assignment, like a message in a bottle. Then he walked up to his teacher’s desk and turned them in.
A week later, Henry was called to the principal’s office to speak with the police officer assigned to the school. In El Salvador, Henry had learned to distrust the police, who often worked for rival gangs or paramilitary death squads. But the officer assured Henry that the Suffolk County police were not like the cops he had known before he sought asylum in the United States. They could connect him to the FBI, which could protect him and move him far from Long Island.
So after a childhood spent in fear, Henry made the first choice he considered truly his own. He decided to help the FBI arrest his fellow gang members.
Henry’s cooperation was a coup for law enforcement. MS-13 was in the midst of a convulsion of violence that claimed 25 lives in Long Island over the past two years.
The feature then becomes an editorial:
President Trump had seized on MS-13 as a symbol of the dangers of immigration, referring to parts of Long Island as “bloodstained killing fields.” Police were desperately looking for informants who could help them crack how the gang worked and make arrests. Henry gave them a way in.
Under normal circumstances, Henry’s choice would have been his salvation. By working with the police, he could have escaped the gang and started fresh. But not in the dawning of the Trump era, when every immigrant has become a target and local police in towns like Brentwood have become willing agents in a nationwide campaign of detention and deportation. Without knowing it, Henry had picked the wrong moment to help the authorities.
More character development ensues—I mean, a whole lot of it—before we get back to the plot.
THE MESSAGE CALLING HIM to the principal’s office came over the intercom while Henry was sitting in class, texting a friend. His classmates teased him as he left, assuming he was in trouble again. But when he got to the office, he was introduced to a stranger in a suit. The Suffolk County police officer who was stationed in the school, George Politis, told Henry that the man was from the FBI. If Henry wanted to help, Politis said, he should tell the man everything he knew, because the FBI could give him a new identity and relocate him far from Long Island.
The stranger asked Henry to come up with an alias for him. Henry chose the name Tony and the last initial F, for federale. In reality, Tony was Angel Rivera, a Suffolk County homicide detective detailed to the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force. With his menacing face and air of authority, he reminded Henry of El Destroyer, the gang leader back home. And unlike Politis, Rivera spoke Spanish. Henry decided to trust him. He knew about the witness protection program from TV shows, and he thought this could be his ticket out of MS-13. But Rivera never offered him a formal agreement.
Rivera had spent the previous month questioning gang members rounded up after the murder of the two girls. They either blew him off or grudgingly negotiated to save themselves from years in prison. But Henry faced no charges; he was volunteering to come forward as an informant. He seemed eager to unburden himself. After the initial meeting they spoke only over the phone or via text. Henry tried to answer whenever Rivera reached out, and apologized when he was unavailable. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer you quickly,” he wrote one afternoon when he missed a few messages. “It’s just that I was sleeping because I work nights.”
Rivera texted him looking for leads about the gang’s plans and for help connecting gang aliases with real names. The exchanges read like debriefings a teenager in a talkative mood might give a probing parent. One night, Henry complained about two fellow gang members. “One told me, ‘You’ve been in this since you were 12 because you liked it, and now you want to leave?'”
Rivera asked for that boy’s given name and gang name. He wanted to know if Henry had any ideas about how to catch him breaking the law. “Do you know if he had a gun?” he asked. “Or if he sells drugs? Are they here illegally?”
That goes on for a bit but the gist of it is that the cops act like, well, cops and Henry was a desperate teen trying to help them out at great personal risk.
After a few days, Rivera got in touch again: “You don’t have to worry about that boy any more.” Thanks to the name Henry had provided, the boy had been swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Since Trump’s election, the Suffolk County Police Department has stepped up its cooperation with ICE, targeting suspected MS-13 members for deportation. Shipping suspects back to Central America is easier and quicker than proving they have broken the law; even if suspects have committed no crime, ICE can petition to have their immigration bail revoked. In effect, it is a repeat of the same failed strategy that led to the creation of MS-13. The gang first spread to El Salvador from Los Angeles amid a wave of deportations in the 1990s that sent members like El Destroyer back to Henry’s slum. Now, by deporting children who have come to America seeking escape from MS-13, the Trump administration is only intensifying the cycle that drove them here in the first place.
Last year, under Trump, ICE arrested nearly four times more immigrants simply for being suspected of belonging to MS-13 than it did in 2016. Long Island has been the epicenter of the new initiative, called Operation Matador. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions both delivered major speeches in front of the Suffolk police last year and congratulated them on embracing the administration’s strategy. Trump also invited the mother of Kayla Cuevas, the murdered girl who had flashed the Bloods sign at Henry, to his State of the Union address in January. In private, some Long Island detectives and prosecutors grumbled about the ICE partnership, saying it hampers efforts to investigate the gang. But as the wave of arrests attracted federal grants, additional staff and positive national media attention, Suffolk County effectively began to serve as a local arm of ICE, rounding up immigrant kids for deportation.
Children’s advocates on Long Island started to warn teenagers to avoid the cops. “We can’t work with Suffolk County police, because any information they have is going to go straight to ICE,” says Feride Castillo, who runs a program for at-risk youth on Long Island. “I tell my immigrant kids all the time not to open their mouths — I don’t care what they’re promising you.”
All very interesting but not especially surprising. As we’ve seen in the counter-terrorism fight, there’s a natural tension between law enforcement and its need to build a case that will stand up in court—and, sometimes, to use that case instead to leverage those higher on the food chain—with the more expeditious methods of intelligence and military operations. It makes perfect sense to use deportation as a tool against MS-13 gang members against whom authorities can’t build a case. But, of course, that weakens the law enforcement side of the equation. If cooperating with police is to risk going back to El Salvador, then building cases becomes even harder. Which will then feed a cycle of more deportations and less cooperation.
At any rate, we’re a couple thousand words into the piece and haven’t gotten to the rather huge charge made in the subhed. Finally, it comes:
Now that he had helped the police, Henry assumed his witness protection papers would be coming through any day. When he turned 18, he started telling friends and teachers he trusted that he would soon disappear to California. Then one morning in August, as Henry was making lunch for his shift at the toilet paper factory, the federales finally came for him. But they weren’t from the FBI or the witness protection program. They were from ICE. The same unit that Henry had helped to arrest members of MS-13 was now pursuing a deportation case against him, using the information he had provided as evidence.
Confused, Henry told the agents he was already working with the police. He asked them to call Tony. Instead, after interrogating him, the ICE agents put him on a bus. He watched the Long Island streets he knew disappear, replaced by the high-rises of downtown Manhattan, then darkness as the bus was swallowed by a tunnel to New Jersey. He was headed to an ICE detention center full of young men suspected of being MS-13 members — the very same ones he had snitched on.
One night, as Henry sat in the TV room watching a reality show about aspiring Miami rappers, a half-dozen MS-13 members walked up to him, led by a Brentwood High student who had established himself as the gang’s leader on the ward. The boy called him Triste and demanded to see his detention memo.
Every inmate rounded up in ICE’s anti-gang raids is given a memo explaining why the government has pegged him as a member of MS-13. Most are short and vague. They list things like school suspensions, Facebook posts and statements by anonymous informants. Henry’s memo is so specific that it amounts to a signed confession. It lists the details that Henry confided to George Politis, the school’s police officer. It quotes his account of the murder he committed back in El Salvador. And most damning, it reveals that he informed on the Sailors to the Suffolk County police. “The subject told SCPD that he has recently had contact with the following confirmed MS-13 members,” the memo says, listing the names of El Fantasma and another Sailor. Instead of protecting his identity as an informant, the police and ICE had effectively signed his death warrant.
“He’s screwed,” says John Oliva, a retired member of the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force who saw Henry’s memo. “At the end of the day, that kid is going to become a statistic. If he wanted out, he should have just moved to another town, lived in a basement apartment with ten other people, and started working his way out.”
The MS-13 members who were locked up with Henry suspected that he had been an informant. The only way to clear his name and save his life, the boy from Brentwood warned him, was to produce his detention memo. For weeks, Henry tried to put them off. He told them he was waiting for his lawyer to send it, but that wasn’t credible for long. When the boys started coming around to his bed at night to ask about the memo, he signed up to work an overnight shift in the kitchen, drinking weak coffee to stay awake until morning, then lying on his bed during the day trying to fall asleep. Every day he waited for the attack to come. Gang members in the jail routinely got into violent fights, splattering the floor with blood until they were broken up by guards known as tortugas, because their oversize helmets and heavy armor made them look like turtles.
Finally, sitting cross-legged on his bunk with a piece of paper barely thicker than a tissue, Henry once again decided to scribble a plea for help. This time he addressed it to his lawyer, Bryan Johnson, asking him to put together a fake memo he could show the gang.
“I just need a document saying I was questioned by the FBI but didn’t tell them anything,” Henry wrote. “The members here have said that if I don’t show them my memo, they’ll know I’m a rat, and that will be the end of me. They’ll greenlight the hunt.”
He ended with an apology. “Forgive how bad my handwriting is. It’s just that I feel very scared right now.”
Johnson was rattled by the letter. He couldn’t create a fake memo for Henry, but there was a chance he could get him out of ICE custody by appealing to a federal court. The government has a program that gives green cards to people with criminal records who cooperate with investigators. It is especially intended for immigrants who might be killed back home. Henry could qualify, but he would need someone from law enforcement to confirm that his information had been valuable.
Johnson texted Rivera, asking him to share what he knew at Henry’s asylum hearing, which is slated for April 5. Rivera texted back the names of two boys that Henry had helped get arrested. But he refused to testify, citing concern for his own safety. “My job doesn’t allow me to do that,” he wrote, “especially in my situation being an enemy of MS-13 and several certain individuals incarcerated for murder.” The federal prosecutor overseeing the murder cases involving the Sailors also declined to assist in Henry’s defense, as did Politis.
The choice to turn an informant like Henry over to ICE has consequences far beyond his individual case. If gang members can’t receive protection in exchange for coming forward with information, police will have almost no means to penetrate the insular world of MS-13. School officials who turned Henry over to the authorities were outraged when they learned he had been trapped in a no man’s land between the gang and the law. “They certainly were taking advantage of what he had to offer,” says Robert Feliciano, the head of the Suffolk County school board. “You can’t just do that and then drop him.”
Those who work to get kids out of gangs echo that concern. “Anyone in MS-13 who sees what’s going on with this guy, they’re not going to want to talk to the cops,” says Bob DeSena, founder of the Council for Unity, one of the largest gang intervention programs in New York. “The one thing you never do — the last thing the police want to do — is send a message that if you cooperate with the police, you’re not going to get protection and no one is going to come speak up for you. Rivera, if he wasn’t full of shit, should pick up the phone and say, ‘Look, this guy helped us.'”
In fact, it appears that Henry’s case was mishandled at almost every step along the way. Everyone involved places the blame on someone else. The school says it was required by law to tell the police that Henry was in danger. The police, who told ICE about Henry, blame the feds for trying to deport him. The FBI says that Rivera wasn’t officially a member of the task force, even though he was working out of the bureau’s office. And ICE says that it didn’t know that Henry was an informant. It acknowledges, however, that creating detention memos for kids like Henry puts their lives at risk, and it has decided to end the practice. “That memo was not intended for public consumption,” says Rachael Yong Yow, an ICE spokesperson. “You do these memos, and then something like this happens.”
One of the gang members that Henry turned over to Rivera, meanwhile, has been released by ICE. Unlike Henry, he did not admit to being a member of MS-13, and ICE was unable to prove it. All told, a quarter of the 200 immigrants rounded up in ICE’s anti-gang operation on Long Island last year have been released because of insufficient evidence. So Henry is marked for death and slated for deportation, while the gang members he helped his handler target go free.
This is an awful story. It appears that, as a minimum, almost everyone along the way screwed this up.
Henry wrote a note to his teacher confessing to a murder, albeit one he was coerced into committing. She was duty-bound to turn that in to the principal who was legally required to notify the authorities. Certainly, he should have been advised of his Miranda rights and offered an attorney; it’s not clear from the story whether that happened. In any case, having already signed a confession, he was in a less-than-ideal situation.
I don’t know what the FBI’s normal procedures are in a case like this. At 17, Henry was a minor but one who could likely have been tried as an adult for his crimes. It may well be that witness protection was never a real option here. While Henry clearly expected it, it’s not clear that he ever requested it. It certainly wasn’t promised.
That said, it’s simply immoral for federal authorities to strong-arm a civilian, much less a minor child, into conducting incredibly dangerous undercover work to help them build their case without providing some rather substantial consideration in return.
That ICE acted incompetently and inhumanely here is hardly a surprise. Their mission isn’t one that’s going to attract top-drawer talent. And it requires a certain callousness to round up and deport people back to the country from which they fled in desperation.
Still, it’s quite probable that they didn’t cross-check with FBI and understand that Henry was an informant. They were likely just acting on the information from local authorities who, not unreasonably, cooperate with federal authorities on dealing with gang activity.
It’s especially tricky here in that FBI is part of the Justice Department and ICE under Homeland Security, making ironing out this sort of case more challenging. But I can’t imagine Attorney General Sessions or President Trump being all that interested in intervening here.