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.
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."
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."