Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced last week the results of what it considered to be a law-enforcement victory. In September and October the federal government arrested 267 people labeled members or associates of the multinational gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. The gang, with tens of thousands of members throughout the Americas, operates transnational criminal networks. In the United States, its members have been arrested for recent and gruesome murders in Boston, Long Island, and Virginia, and the Trump administration has singled out the gang as the worst threat to the safety of people in this country.
In a July speech laden with violent imagery, Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals,” and told law-enforcement officers that gangs “have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.” In October, Sessions addressed MS-13 gang members directly in a speech. “We will find you. We will devastate your networks,” he said. “We are coming for you. We will hunt you down.”
ICE’s Thursday announcement of Operation Raging Bull, as the initiative was dubbed, was clearly intended as a way of showing tough-on-crime follow-through on the Trump administration’s threats. And the arrests are significant. The Trump administration has clearly focused its law-enforcement resources on cracking down on MS-13.
But in its communications push this week, ICE inadvertently admitted exactly what critics have accused the Trump administration of: In order to make so many arrests, ICE collaborates with local law-enforcement agencies that stack gang databases with the names of people who not only are not gang members but who also pose no public-safety threat. But by leveraging the fearsome reputation of MS-13 as political cover ICE and collaborating law-enforcement agencies are able to identify, criminalize, detain, and eventually deport large numbers of immigrants of color.
In a CBS report that aired the morning ICE announced Operation Raging Bull, an ICE agent named Jason Molina admitted during a predawn raid on a supposed gang member that the only known crime the suspect had committed was being undocumented.
CBS correspondent Margaret Brennan’s ride-along report includes this stunning exchange:
“He entered the country illegally so—and then he went through the immigration process and a judge ordered him removed,” said Jason Molina, assistant special agent in charge.
“We know he’s an MS-13 member?” Brennan said.
“Yes. We have information, we have pictures of him actually flashing gang signs,” Molina said.
But gang membership is not a crime, and the agents did not have a criminal warrant. They only weapons they found were “either pellet guns or BB guns,” Molina said.
But Molina’s team was still able to make the arrest based on the suspect’s immigration status—part of the unique mandate of the Homeland Security investigations unit of ICE. An hour later, they nabbed a second suspect. Molina said he is an MS-13 associate.