Donald Trump and MS-13

Donald Trump has held out MS-13 as an example of a broken immigration policy. But the reality is far more complex.

Photo: Donald Trump has held out MS-13 as an example of a broken immigration policy. But the reality is more complex.

I appeared on KCRW public radio on Jan. 31 with Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker magazine to talk about the MS-13 street gang the day after President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address. During his address, Trump mentioned MS-13 four times, talking about a heinous slaying of two teenage girls by gang members on Long Island and claiming that the gang has taken advantage of loopholes in the immigration system.

Podcast: Listen to me talk about MS-13 on KCRW

Photos: Images from my L.A. Times investigation of MS-13

The reality is far more complex. MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha 13, formed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I investigated the gang as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and documented how a U.S. policy of deporting MS-13 members backfired, spreading the gang across Central America and Mexico. Waves of gang members were deported to El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They formed new cells of the gang there. Members of those cells came to the U.S. and ended up in places such as Long Island, northern Virginia and Maryland. The gang also spread to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. As a result of U.S. policy, a Los Angeles-based gang became a transnational criminal enterprise that has helped destabilze countries in Central America and cause a new generation of immigrations to flee gang violence in their homelands and end up in the United States.

The Story Behind Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month
(Photo: Arizona State University)

Every year on Sept. 15, government institutions and community-based organizations across the Unites States commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month. The month-long observation is a time to acknowledge the many contributions that Latinos have made to the political, cultural and social fabric of our country.

While many people are aware of Hispanic Heritage Month, relatively few know the backstory of how it was established.

I know firsthand, because I helped get Hispanic Heritage Month enacted.

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Leaving the L.A. Times

(Video: Rich Marosi/Robert J. Lopez)

I spent 22 years at the Los Angeles Times, where I worked on investigative and multimedia projects across the United States and in Mexico and Central America. I had a wonderful career and was part of a team of reporters that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing government corruption in Bell, a small city southeast of Los Angeles.

But I was offered a great job and realized that it was time to take on a new and exciting challenge.

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Teaching Social Media in Palestine

I learned about the challenges facing journalists and bloggers in Palestine during a teaching trip to the West Bank. I had been invited to Ramallah to talk about the latest trends in social media and citizen reporting at a conference called Pal Connect.

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Social Media And a Manhunt For a Suspected Cop Killer

Police roadblock during manhunt. Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

Roadblock during manhunt. Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

I was headed to the newsroom when the story broke: Fugitive former police officer Christopher Dorner had been in a shootout with law enforcement officers in the snow-covered mountains northeast of Los Angeles.

INTERVIEW: I talk to Poynter Institute about Twitter and Dorner manhunt

The ex-LAPD officer had been accused of killing three people, including a police officer. A second law enforcement officer would be mortally wounded in a raging gun battle that would soon erupt after Dorner fled the shootout and barricaded himself inside a mountainside cabin.

It was a huge story that illustrated how social media has revolutionized the way we gather and share information.

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Bell Coverage Wins Pulitzer Prize

Bell City Hall
Bell is one of the poorest cities in L.A. County. Photo: Robert J. Lopez

I was part of a team of  Los Angeles Times reporters and editors that was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service for a series of stories exposing alleged government corruption in the City of Bell.

PHOTO: 2011 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Our articles detailed how top officials in Bell, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, enriched themselves with extraordinary salaries and benefits while illegally raising taxes on residents and resorting to other legally questionable schemes to raise revenue.

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Spread of An International Street Gang

MS-13 gang member arrested in El Salvador. Photo: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times

MS-13 gang member arrested in El Salvador. Photo: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times

This gritty multimedia project took me across the United States and into Mexico and Central America. We showed how a U.S. immigration policy of deporting “criminal aliens” backfired with members of the Mara Salvatrucha, spreading what was once a Los Angeles gang across six countries and 33 states.

VIDEOS: Gang Spreads Across U.S. and Central America

We captured original video footage inside a prison in El Salvador and interviewed gang members, law enforcement officials, victims and intervention workers for this eight-month-long project. Here’s the link to the entire series.

PHOTOS: MS-13 Gang in U.S. and El Salvador

Occupy L.A. Protesters Arrested, Camp Razed

iPhone video footage I shot during the final hours of Occupy L.A.

The night began with Occupy L.A. protesters singing, dancing and chanting. But the festive mood changed as the LAPD swooped down on the City Hall encampment.

In the end, nearly 300 people were arrested and the grassy park was cleared. I was one of a number of Los Angeles Times reporters who witnessed the events unfold as we blogged, Tweeted and shot photos and video footage at the scene. During the course of the night, I produced three videos that were published on L.A. Now, the L.A. Times breaking-news site. My colleagues and I stayed on the streets until police quashed the protest in the early morning hours on Nov. 30.

Sheriff Agrees to Limited Viewing of Ruben Salazar Files

Eight boxes of files on the slain journalist. Photo: Robert J. Lopez

Eight boxes of Ruben Salazar records. Photo: Robert J. Lopez

In 1994, I filed my first California Public Records Act Request to review the Sheriff’s Department files on Ruben Salazar. The department denied the request, saying the records were confidential law enforcement files. I made another CPRA request in 1995. It, too, was denied. Then in early 2010, as the 40th anniversary of Salazar’s slaying approached, I filed another request with Sheriff Lee Baca. He refused to release the files.

Documents – View FBI and LAPD Records on Ruben Salazar

I produced several reports and a video after Baca’s denial, which sparked an outcry from members of the Salazar family, activists, journalists and elected officials — all of whom said it was time for the department to come clean on the case and release its records. Finally, in late February 2011, Baca agreed to allow a limited viewing of the once-secret records by journalists and academics.
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Seeking the Ruben Salazar Files

In the months leading up to the 40th anniversary of the killing of Ruben Salazar, I filed a California Public Records Act request with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department seeking documents that might shed light on what happened the day the newsman died. An L.A. Times columnist and Spanish-language KMEX-TV news director, Salazar was shot in the head by a tear-gas missile fired by a sheriff’s deputy after rioting exploded in East L.A. during the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War on Aug. 29, 1970. The case has been clouded by controversy and speculation for 40 years.
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