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.
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.
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."
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.