The Gangs of El Salvador

(A version of this story originally appeared in Newsweek.)

“Did Weaz tell you about Bullet?” Eddie asked, leaning back in the twilight of one of San Salvador’s ten thousand run-down patios. “He died. He got shot. By a rival gang.”

Gang shootings are common in once war-torn El Salvador. But what makes Bullet’s situation even more unfortunate is that he no longer belonged to any gang. He worked for Homies Unidos, one of the few organizations that offer help to Salvadorans who want to transition out of gang life. The attitude in El Salvador, however, is “once a gang member, always a gang member.” Former gang members must deal with the ire of gangs, the police and “la sombra negra” (“the black shadow”), a vigilante group that is a descendent of El Salvador’s rightist death squads.

Eddie left El Salvador when he was 14 years old, sent north by his mother to fend for himself in L.A. He had been pressed into service by the Salvadoran armed force to fight the guerilla insurgency. He got to L.A. with only one skill: he knew how to handle a gun. He hooked up with the at that time primarily Mexican gang, Calle Dieciocho, (“18th Street”). Central Americans, especially Salvadorans, were swelling the gang’s membership. But things started to change for Eddie when he got out of a Mexican jail, one of his many stays in stir, both in the U.S. and south of the border.

“I found out in jail there was a new gang. And I gotta tell you, I was kinda proud.” The gang was M.S., for Mara Salvatrucha (“Salvadoran Swarm”). “But then when I got out I found out they were supposed to be my enemies. Now I gotta go kill my own people, again? It was like I never left El Salvador.”

When the Chapultepec Accords were signed in 1992, putting an end to the armed conflict between the leftist rebels and rightist government, the INS began deporting convicted gang members back to their countries of origin, including El Salvador. With guns for sale by demobbed military and guerillas, turned-out cops and unemployed death squads killers, and with a group of alienated gang members back in Salvador, the situation was ripe for an explosion of gang activity. Salvadoran arms, a bi-national culture of the gun, and American know-how contributed to an eruption of violence that most Salvadorans consider the number one issue of their lives.

“It’s my personal opinion that (the gangs) didn’t exist before the deportations,” said Milton Andaluz, a San Francisco gang unit officer of Salvadoran ancestry. “They were scattered. The deportations brought them together.”

Andaluz’s skepticism about the utility of deportations seems common among law enforcement.

“Deportations are not the answer,” said Officer Jason Lee, a gang specialist and public relations officer with the LAPD. “These guys sometimes come right back. Sometimes in just a few days they’ll be on the street again.”

The Salvadoran gangs, both in the U.S. and El Salvador, are a case study in hemispheric interdependency. Without the civil war, there would never have been enough guns for the level of gang violence that plagues the country. Without the deportations there would never have been the model and the experience.

“We just tryin’ to work, tryin’ to keep it cool,” said Eddie, who has devoted his life to the difficult task of finding hope. “We’re just waiting for a better future, man, for something to happen, and it’s going to be nice. These kids, they might change and we’re all gonna live happily, man.”

With almost twenty years away in the States and less than five back, in some ways Eddie is more of an American than a Salvadoran. But he got a job, kicked heroin, found a wife to love, had a child and joined Homies. It’s not OK. But it’s better. What Eddie and Weaz and their compatriots hope to offer “las maras” is an antidote to the gang ethos: respect. And what he has to say about how to achieve it speaks to the highly polarized country in general, not just to gangsters.

“Stop hating, man. You gotta forgive people.”

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