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What It Was Like Reporting on a Teenager Marked for Death by the Gang MS-13

Henry, the teenager, gave me more access than any source has ever allowed me. And given his youth and vulnerable position, I often wondered if it was too much. But he wanted his story told.

In a section of woods known as a favorite gang hangout, MS-13 marks its turf with “503,” the country calling code of El Salvador. (Natalie Keyssar, special to ProPublica)

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How do you write about a teenager who wants his story told, when there is no safe way to tell it?

That was the dilemma we faced with Henry, a Long Island high school student who tried to get away from his gang, MS-13. Henry agreed to help police and the FBI arrest his fellow gang members and worked with law enforcement for about a year until immigration authorities arrested him last August, using his own disclosures about gang membership to justify his deportation.

My name is Hannah Dreier and I cover immigration at ProPublica. I’m focusing this year on MS-13 and law enforcement. I came across Henry’s case last October while reporting on Long Island about how police departments are teaming up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At first, all I knew was his gang name, Triste, the Spanish word for “sad.” Henry’s lawyer told me there was no way to do a story and protect his client’s identity, so I just kept tabs on the case as Henry moved toward deportation to El Salvador, where he believes he has been marked for death as an informant. But as the outlook grew increasingly grim, Henry and his lawyer decided that a news story might be a last remaining option to save his life.

Henry agreed to speak with me in February, when he was 18. He was eager to talk, and from what he told me, his case seemed like a strong illustration of what can happen when criminal investigation gets mixed up with immigration enforcement. He arranged for me to be given his cellphone, and I combed through years of text and WhatsApp conversations, as well as exchanges he had with his FBI handler. I asked him to help me make a glossary of Spanish gang slang so that I could understand some coded messages.

At first, I thought I would use only Henry’s gang name, Triste. But he told me he was willing to use his first name as well, because he wanted readers to see him as a real person. He also agreed to let ProPublica use a video and photos of him, shot in a way that did not reveal his face, but gave enough of a glimpse to show his humanity. He gave me permission to call his friends and family, and to contact people whose names recurred in his Facebook chat history, which ran for 2,000 pages. It was more access than any source has ever allowed me. And given Henry’s youth and vulnerable position, I often wondered if it was too much.

I consulted with gang and law enforcement experts and with Henry’s lawyer to ensure we were doing the right thing. I became convinced that what Henry said was true: He was a dead man walking. A story promised a sliver of hope that someone might intervene.

We imposed some limits that Henry did not ask for, including using less revealing photos, leaving out details about what he might do to hide from the gang if released, and refraining from contacting sensitive sources. In the end, we decided that we could not truly protect Henry by obscuring his face more or redacting his name; anyone in the gang who read the piece would know who he was. The decision came down to the question of whether or not to publish. And Henry had been clear: He wanted to tell his story.

I was the only reporter allowed into Henry’s asylum hearing Thursday, and an ICE lawyer tried repeatedly to get me tossed out of the courtroom. The case had seemed unwinnable going in, but amid intense public attention, the judge granted all parties an extension. He questioned Henry closely about how and why he had worked with law enforcement, and said he wanted to hear from police, FBI and high school officials at a new hearing on May 22. Henry’s lawyer was surprised and heartened.

As the hearing was ending, the ICE attorney asked the judge once more if Henry really understood what he was signing up for by allowing a reporter into the room. Did he understand a story about the hearing would be published? Had he seen me taking notes, and did he understand what those the notes were for? But the immigration judge dismissed the objections.

“Is it a smart move? Not a smart move? That’s subject to debate. But he has certain rights, and one of those rights is to waive his right to privacy,” the judge said.

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Portrait of Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier is a national reporter at The Washington Post. She previously worked at ProPublica, where she won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a year-long series on immigrants, gangs and mishandled law enforcement investigations. Before that, she was based in Venezuela for the Associated Press.

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