NEW YORK TIMES
March 28, 2005
Gang of Our Own Making
By Luis J. Rodriguez
San Fernando, Calif. - In 1996, I was present at a meeting of gang members and community leaders in San Salvador. Heavily tattooed young men, one with a hand mangled from a hand grenade blast, told of the horrifying violence and gang warfare that had succeeded the battles of the 12-year civil war on El Salvador's streets. Aside from their tattoos, what was striking about these gang members is that they had grown up not in El Salvador, but in the United States, and that the gangs they were in - Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street - were started in Los Angeles.
That gathering was startling evidence of the globalization of United States-based gangs. Just how much Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has grown since then was evident this month when the Department of Homeland Security announced the arrests of 103 gang members in New York State, Miami, Washington, the Baltimore area and Los Angeles.
Mara Salvatrucha is now reported to operate in 31 states and five countries, with 100,000 members across Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The government says MS-13 is the fastest-growing and most violent gang in the country. It describes MS-13 as having "cells" that smuggle people, guns and contraband across international lines, and some federal officials have mentioned possible ties between MS-13 and Al Qaeda.
While there's no proof that MS-13 has any connection to Al Qaeda, it has something in common with it: American policy played a role in the creation of both groups.
MS-13 is a result of our policy in Central America, specifically the policy that fueled the civil wars that sent more than two million refugees to the United States in the 1980's. Some of their children confronted well-entrenched Mexican-American gangs in the barrios where they landed. For their protection, they created their own groups, emulating the style of older Chicano gangs like 18th Street. MS-13, for instance, was born in the crowded, crack-ridden Mexican and Central-American community of Pico-Union, just west of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.
After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, government officials declared the main culprits to be young African-American and Latino gang members. In the mid-90's as many as 40,000 youths accused of being members of MS-13, 18th Street and other gangs were deported every year to Mexico and Central America. Sophisticated, tattooed, English-speaking young men raised and acculturated in the United States were sent to countries with no resources, no jobs and no history with these types of gangs.
Soon the deported members of MS-13 and 18th Street began recruiting among homeless and glue-sniffing youth who had never been to the United States. In a few years, these new members were making their way to the United States, ending up in far-flung corners of the country and recruiting a new generation. When the Department of Homeland Security deports the men it arrested last week, the cycle will start again.
When I was growing up in East L.A. in the 1960's, I was a member of a Chicano street gang. I was shot at a half-dozen times and arrested on several occasions. I understand why a teenager finds joining a gang necessary. But thanks to a few teachers, youth workers and community leaders, I eventually left the gang life.
What would have happened to me if I had been deported to a homeland I barely knew? The gang members at the 1996 meeting I attended were trying to find alternatives to violence and drugs. They wanted to be incorporated into the country, to be allowed to rebuild, to learn skills, to make decisions about bettering their communities and to stop being harassed or beaten by the police and attacked by death squads.
While the meeting ended on a high note, with people applauding and promising changes, in the end little happened. A group of former MS-13 and 18th Street gang youth formed a peace and justice organization called Homies Unidos, but their efforts over the years to obtain jobs, training, tattoo removal and counseling were largely ignored.
Instead, El Salvador instituted a "mano dura," or "firm hand," policy. It became illegal to be a member of a gang, whether a crime was committed or not. Jails became filled with gang youth from Los Angeles. The same policy was instituted in Honduras. According to news reports, these governments were getting advice from American law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
Today we're confronted with the same choice: we can continue the repression, arrests and firm-hand policies that only guarantee more violence and more lost youth. Or we can bring gang youth to the table and work to create jobs and training, providing real options for meaningful work and healthy families. In other words, we can help sow the seeds of transformation, eliminating the reasons young people join gangs in the first place.
We have the means to do both. Both have great costs. But one choice will worsen the violence and terror; the other will help bring peace, both in the streets of the United States and in the barrios of America's neighbors.