From the archives: Gangs find fresh turf in Salvador

The teen-agers crowding at the edge of the central plaza flash hand signs, share a marijuana joint and swap stories of the previous night's exploits. Dressed in baggy pants, their arms and chests covered with tattoos, their hair slicked back, they speak a street Spanish mixed with street English and call each other by gang nicknames.

"Whassup, home?"

Meet the Hollywood Locos gang--El Salvador branch.

The latest product of the longstanding social and economic ties between El Salvador and the United States, especially Southern California, is something neither side is particularly eager to claim: a rapidly expanding and increasingly violent gang subculture.

Gangs formed by Salvadorans in Los Angeles have long been considered among the most ruthless and deadly. But with El Salvador's civil war finally winding down, members of those gangs have been returning here--some by choice, many by force, as immigration authorities step up deportation of convicted felons and other lawbreakers.

They bring with them their murderous ways and brutal rituals. They recruit among El Salvador's abundant disaffected youth, form new gangs or co-opt the existing school-based gangs. Law enforcement authorities say the gangs are partly responsible for a huge surge in crime that is terrorizing Salvadorans just as they struggle to recover from war.

"We are finding, every day, more and more influence from the Los Angeles gangs--the way they dress, the way they celebrate, their ceremonies. . . ," said national deputy police chief Rodrigo Avila. "The internationalization of these gangs is a scary thing."

The graffiti common in Los Angeles neighborhoods have sprouted up all over San Salvador, in this suburb of the capital and even in the smallest rural towns. Some of the graffiti welcome "homeboys"--in English.

Versions of several Los Angeles gangs now exist in El Salvador, including the notorious Mara Salvatrucha and its principal enemy, 18th Street.

The phenomenon is not limited to this country. Police in Belize, for example, report the arrival of alleged members of the Crips and Bloods gangs. But nowhere has the importation of gangs flourished as it has here.

Postwar Salvadoran society is enormously fertile ground for gangs: This is a cruelly violent country where guns, grenades and other weapons abound. Unemployment is high and opportunity low, especially for youths. The war and the migration of more than 1 million Salvadorans in the last decade have left families broken, parents separated from children and children deprived of authority figures or role models.

And in a curious case of reverse culture shock, many of the Salvadoran gangsters who are returning to El Salvador spent most of their lives in the United States. They know Western or Normandie better than San Salvador's Plaza Libertad. They come here barely able to speak Spanish and with few ties to the local community, making the gang network all the more crucial to what they see as their survival.

Ominously, they also bring with them the same deadly rivalries that they had in the States.

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Jose Amaya, a shaven-headed member of Mara Salvatrucha, says he was deported from Los Angeles in March after finishing a two-year prison sentence for drug dealing. He had lived in California for 19 of his 20 years and was arrested three times before being deported.

"I don't like it here," he said. "All my life is in L.A. My family is there. My money is better there. I got enemies here. Like I been deported, they been deported. He's my enemy in L.A., he's my enemy here too. So I kick with my homeboys."

Amaya was holding court around midnight recently outside the main pavilion of San Salvador's International Fairgrounds. Weekend concerts and dances at this site have become the gangs' favorite legal entertainment; it's a place to gather, get drunk and plot ways to kill adversaries. Hundreds attend, to the chagrin of residents and police. Some gangs even charter buses for followers from rural hometowns.

On this Saturday night, agents from the paramilitary National Police formed a cordon outside the pavilion and rounded up about 25 boys who looked like gang wanna-bes. They wore baggy pants and long T-shirts, but most were younger than 16 and not armed. Older boys hid the weapons.

Police-- la chota in gang slang--loaded the detainees into a pickup truck. As it pulled away, the boys flashed their hands in the shape of an "M" for mara , the Spanish slang for gang , and shouted, "M.S., rifa!" "Mara Salvatrucha rules!"

Because they are minors, the boys eventually will be released.

Gangs have existed in El Salvador since the late 1950s, but until recently they were more likely to be associated with schools and would fight each other over things like basketball games, perhaps over territory, but not over business interests or crime franchises.

The student gangs were not inclined to attack outsiders, and their weapons usually were nothing more deadly than knives. The war between leftist guerrillas and U.S.-backed armies in the 1980s made these gangs more violent as it made society more violent.

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Into this milieu came the repatriated Los Angeles gang members, and suddenly there was an explosion in the number of gangs and the level of violence. Authorities say more than 230 gangs exist in El Salvador, with thousands of members. While no one keeps statistics on gang crimes, police routinely arrest scores of purported gang members every week, for offenses ranging from loitering to the recent case of a young man who threw a hand grenade onto a passenger bus, killing two people.

They traffic in drugs, steal cars and mug pedestrians. According to police and to the gang members' own testimony, they have joined rings--sometimes with army officers--that smuggle stolen vehicles from Southern California to Central America, and weapons north to the United States.

Many gang members came to El Salvador because of the heat they were feeling in the United States. Amid growing public outcry, U.S. officials recently stepped up their efforts to crack down on gangsters and illegal immigrants.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service formed the Violent Gang Task Force two years ago to investigate and deport foreign-born gang members who are in the United States illegally. Those who have legal permanent residency but have committed felonies are also subject to deportation by the task force.

The L.A.-based Mara Salvatrucha, made up of Salvadorans, is one of the gangs the task force has targeted.

"We are focusing on that gang in particular because it is one of the most substantial and violent in Southern California," Chief Special Agent Michael Flynn said in a telephone interview from INS Western Region headquarters in Laguna Niguel. "I think we've had an impact. Have we dissolved the gang? No. It continues in L.A. . . . We've been successful in being a deterrent."

In 1993, about 70 Salvadoran gang members were formally deported by the task force, Flynn said. Hundreds more left through other deportation programs or on their own. The INS has deportation holds on another 600 Salvadoran convicted felons who are in the California state prison system.

The official numbers tell only part of the story, because the influence of gang members who arrive in El Salvador has a ripple effect. One member of the Mara Salvatrucha can indoctrinate dozens of youths. And then others emulate what they see or have heard about, so that eventually gangs styled after those in Los Angeles spring up all over the country. Finally, additional gangs form as defenses against the new gangs.

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Some of the new gangsters have never even been to the States, but they use the vocabulary and know which of their rivals they are supposed to hate. A member of the Mara Salvatrucha, identifiable by his tattoos, crosses paths with someone from the 18th Street, and that is sufficient to start a fight to the death--even though neither knows what the rivalry is about.

As part of U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended the civil war in 1992, the Salvadoran army was cut in half and the guerrilla army disbanded, leaving about 40,000 former combatants from both sides for whom killing was their most valued skill. They are natural recruits for the gangs.

So authorities and citizens alike are faced with a dilemma: As it tries to rebuild after the war, El Salvador has little use for the added violence of L.A. gangs. Yet these are Salvadoran nationals, after all, who do have a right to be here.

"Gangs are a scourge on our citizens," said an angry caller to a local radio program, a comment that is heard frequently. "They learned this in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, our people go there and are marginalized, and these are the things they learn."

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Salvadorans here are only starting to confront the gang problem. Avila, the deputy police chief, sought ideas by visiting Los Angeles police and county sheriff's departments last year, as well as the California Youth Authority.

Currently, with the exception of an occasional vocational training course, there are no government programs aimed at preventing youths from joining gangs. El Salvador's notoriously corrupt and ineffective justice system is clearly overwhelmed and loses ground daily in its feeble efforts to fight the increasing number of gangs.

What is perhaps most surprising to observers of traditional Salvadoran society is the emergence of female gang members.

Carla Georgina Ramirez was 8 when she went to live with her mother in Los Angeles in 1986, an especially fratricidal period in the civil war. By the time she was a student at a Hollywood junior high school, however, Carla had fallen in with gangs. After one nasty fight last year with rival gang members in "Los," as the gangsters call Los Angeles, Carla's mother decided to send the 15-year-old back to El Salvador.

"My mom says that there was too many problems," Carla said. "They (the rivals) said they was going to kill me--that's what they told my mom. So that's why my mom doesn't wanna take me back. I wanna go back but she doesn't want to take me."

Carla, who wears thick eyeliner and has teased bangs, says the adjustment has been difficult. She hates the fact that Salvadoran students have to wear uniforms to school and that the Wendy's hamburgers and Pizza Hut pizza that she loved in L.A. are a lot more expensive here.

Carla's mother does not know she is hanging out with her "homeboys" 2,300 miles from her former home.

Edwin D. Hernandez, convicted of a felony weapons charge, returned to El Salvador last year after living in San Fernando for 13 years. He had left when he was 10.

"I feel funny 'cause when I get off the plane, it's like, I looked, right, and I say, this ain't my place," said Hernandez, who left a 6-year-old son in Los Angeles. "I was depressed when I got to El Salvador. I'm poor here. I wasn't poor in L.A. I had a car. Family. You put $5 in gas you can drive all day. Over there, anybody can go to the supermarket. Here only people with money can go. . . . There is no future here, you know."

Several of the gang members said with sadness that the lack of easy access to cars here makes it more difficult to do drive-by shootings.

More than 1 million Salvadorans--one-fifth the population--left this country during the 12-year civil war, fleeing the killing or simply looking for economic opportunity. The vast majority ended up in Southern California and Washington, D.C.

At first, Salvadoran youths seeking gangs--for protection, as a surrogate family or for other reasons--hooked up with Mexican-American gangs. But by the early 1980s, driven in part by cultural differences and hatreds, they had begun to branch off to form their own organizations.

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Back in El Salvador, a common immigration pattern was for parents to go to the United States and leave their children with grandparents, aunts and uncles or other, often inattentive, relatives for whom child care was a burden. Discipline, education, values--all declined for some of the children, who had little supervision and became eager gang recruits.

The handful of people who work with gangs in El Salvador further blame the increase in local activity on rampant drug abuse, a permissive society without rules in which life is cheap, and the hostile marginalization of the poor and hopeless.

"We had violence in our streets, but the (Mara Salvatrucha) ended up reinforcing this type of conduct," said social worker Sonia de Jesus Solorzano. "These are kids who do not work, do not study. They have no goals in life. They are the sons of people who have emigrated, people who went to the States so they could make a better life for their kids. So they send back dollars, but their homes have disintegrated."

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A yearlong study of gangs conducted by the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador found that the average gang member comes from an unstable home where he lives with up to 13 relatives. Most come from families with a monthly income of 100 to 700 colones, or about $12 to $82, and more than 60% are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they earn poverty wages.

Solorzano and her partner, Ana Maritza Alvarenga, work in neighborhoods where gangs hold sway and charge "entrance fees," a kind of protection fee.

Alvarenga tells of boarding a bus and running into eight shirtless young Salvadorans who spoke "Spanglish" and were covered with gang tattoos. They clearly had only recently arrived.

"They were not from here," she said. "They were going along as though they were here visiting, like tourists."

The repatriated gang members teach their new followers the range of rituals, from how to challenge and defy police to the hazing techniques of beating up on the newly initiated.

Carlos, a Mara Salvatrucha ringleader here, lived with his mother in Hollywood for 13 years from the time he was 6. He was arrested 38 times before he was 18, he says, but it was a cocaine sales conviction, at age 19, that got him deported.

The first year he was back, he said, he felt lost. But as more of his gang buddies began to arrive from Los Angeles, they organized, and Carlos again had his support network.

Unlike many of his cohorts, he took a steady job driving a truck, but he spends his nights getting high with his "homeboys," who make money by stealing spare tires.

Not long after his return, Carlos got into a fight over a parking spot. The other fellow was an army lieutenant who settled the dispute by shooting Carlos in the shoulder. Carlos ended up in the notorious Mariona national prison, until he bribed a judge to release him.

Carlos plans to stick it out in El Salvador for a few years, and then, he said, he will return to Los Angeles, legally if he can, or illegally if he must. "When I get back home," he said through a marijuana haze, "I won't get into what I was in before."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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