Surrounded by tin huts and seated near the blue and yellow flames of an outdoor fire, the 18-year-old member of an L.A. tagging crew seemed from another world. Inside a small makeshift funeral parlor was his mother--in a coffin. Her lifeless face was visible through a glass window. Gang members, believed to be affiliated with a Los Angeles street gang, had allegedly shot his mother.
But this was not Los Angeles; it was San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.
The teen-ager had just come from Los Angeles to a country he only sporadically visits, although from a war zone he is a part of: You can see it in his face, his clothes, his short-cropped hair.
Only now the wars back home recognize no borders.
The tagger's story is not a curiosity. Although the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot deport someone for simply being a "gang-banger," it is increasingly singling out teen-agers who fit the description in the predominantly Central-American enclaves of Pico-Union, Koreatown and Hollywood. This practice apparently has grown since the 1992 L.A. rebellion, in which Latino immigrants were significantly involved.
"(Since the mid-1980s), changes in the law, including the addition of aggravated felonies, have allowed the federal and state governments to work hand-and-hand in deporting as many of these people as they could," claimed Andres Bustamante, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. "There is definitely more aggressiveness by the INS to seek out and deport these youth." In 1992-93, about 400 adults alleged to be gang members were deported, most of them to Mexico. Forty were sent to El Salvador.
The policy is causing severe strains in countries such as El Salvador, where many of the so-called "gang-bangers" are exiled. Salvadoran officials say they do not understand the L.A. gangs, who are foreign to them, and they blame U.S. immigration policy for the rapid growth of such gangs in their country in the last two years. During the recent national elections, most polls conducted by the Salvadoran media showed that the rise of juvenile delinquency, much of it privately attributed to L.A. deportees, as the No. 1 electoral issue.
"It's your country's fault," a member of El Salvador's new national police force told me during a sweep of L.A. gang members. "(You) create the problem, and then send it back to us."
To be sure, there are legal grounds for detaining and possibly deporting some of these teen-agers. But because many of them lack legal representation or have no knowledge of their rights, they are sent to countries they know little about simply because they were caught dressed like "gang-bangers" and without proper documentation. Most of these kids had been in the United States since childhood, even infancy.
One result is that Los Angeles is now everywhere in San Salvador, an exhaust-filled city of some 2 million people. The graffiti of L.A. barrio gangs--including Mara Salvatrucha, Eighteenth Street, White Fence and Florencia Trece--can be found on walls throughout the city. The placasos (individual gang names) on many San Salvador walls could be those on any wall in Los Angeles: Negro, Oso, Scoobie, Flaco, Chuco.
Some of the homeboys have merged with local street and school gangs, which Central Americans call maras . Skirmishes between rival L.A. barrios have already occurred. One recent incident between L.A.-based gangs reportedly claimed nine lives when a hand grenade was thrown into a crowd.
There are also the clashes between two worlds. Recently, a Salvadoran police officer burned and then cut off the "homeboy" braid of a deported Los Angeles youth. In a Salvadoran prison, I met a California vato who was serving 25 years for a rape/murder he says he was convicted of only because of his hard-style L.A. look. Another prisoner I met is the most feared and respected leader in El Salvador's largest prison, mostly because of savvy picked up on L.A.'s mean streets.
One tragic case I encountered involved a 25-year-old deportee who had been convicted of attempted murder and sent to the Youth Training School, a California Youth Authority facility in Chino. He had been an exemplary student at a Los Angeles high school before being picked up by police, which he claims was a case of mistaken identity.
In any case, he did exceedingly well at the training school. In the five years the youth served, he obtained a high school diploma (and was chosen class valedictorian), a welding certificate, several awards, and an Associate of Arts degree.
But according to a teacher at the school, INS agents showed up as soon as the youth's sentence was up. Although teachers and others who knew the youth wrote glowing letters on his behalf, the INS demanded a large bond from his family, who couldn't afford it. The young man was exiled to El Salvador.
"We spend time and money on these young men--$32,000 a year to house and educate them--then the INS comes and takes them away," the teacher said. "They've done that to several of my students. If we're not going to keep them in this country, as citizens, after all the trouble of educating them, why bother?"
I ran into the youth in Usulutan, El Salvador. He was unemployed and living in a colonia along a dirt road. Without proper, and sometimes expensive, legal assistance, he will be condemned to a life of want in a country he may have been born in, but hardly knows.
The problem of undocumented immigration in the United States is complex. When crime and gangs are thrown into the mix, it is even more intricate. There are no simple solutions, and the "solutions" being implemented may only aggravate injustice. Simply to rid ourselves of "gangs" by deporting them to countries with fewer resources, less knowledge of the dynamics of U.S. social relations, and often less justice, is no solution.*