The Texas Observer and the Texas Democracy Foundation announced this week that Hannah Dreier is the winner of the 2019 MOLLY National Journalism Prize for her “Trapped in Gangland” series on MS-13. Dreier was also named on Thursday one of four finalists for the Michael Kelly Award, which recognizes writers or editors whose work exemplifies “the fearless pursuit and expression of truth,” for the series.
Dreier, who has received multiple awards for her work on MS-13 — including the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and the Hillman Prize for magazine journalism — started reporting on the gang after President Donald Trump seized on MS-13’s violence on Long Island to promote tougher immigration policies. As coverage ramped up, she noticed that we seldom heard from the gang’s mostly immigrant victims. She decided to dig beneath the rhetoric and examine the impact of MS-13, as well as the law enforcement crackdown, on Long Island’s rapidly growing Latino community. The powerful narratives were co-published with New York magazine, Newsday and the New York Times Magazine.
For her first story, Dreier spent months gaining the trust of a teenage informant who helped the FBI catch fellow MS-13 members, believing authorities would offer him a new life. Instead, they handed him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Another piece told the story of a mother searching for her missing son, whom police had dismissed as a runaway until his macheted body was found in the gang’s “killing fields.” The series’ final article featured an asylum-seeker accused of gang membership and deported for drawing a devil, his school mascot but also an MS-13 symbol.
In response to the series, Long Island police began investigating the mishandling of MS-13 murders and the officers who belittled the distraught mother. The Department of Homeland Security opened a civil rights investigation, ICE changed a practice that jeopardizes informants and several Long Island school districts sought a formal agreement with the police limiting officers’ roles in schools.
“The range of characters and voices explored for each story — victims, families, neglected kids trying to escape the gang — make the series a comprehensive, necessary dose of reality in a conversation dominated by the Trump administration’s fear-mongering,” a MOLLY National Journalism Prize judge wrote. “Dreier’s flawless storytelling weaves in historical context and analysis that tie the big picture to the present day. And her reporting has sparked change — not just in policy but in the lives of the victims she profiled. A remarkable piece of journalism.”
Pamela Colloff, a ProPublica senior reporter and writer-at-large at the New York Times Magazine, along with senior research fellow Leora Smith, received honorable mention for the MOLLY National Journalism Prize. They were honored for their work on “Blood Will Tell,” which investigated the science behind bloodstain-pattern analysis. This forensic practice, and the experts who specialize in it, have helped prosecutors secure convictions across the country — even though it turns out to hardly be science at all.