The Children of War: Street Gangs in El Salvador

September 25, 2007

Edgar Bolaños, also known as Shy Boy, trudges to the edge of a soccer field with his friernd Scrappy a few steps behind. They are searching for the "original" Shy Boy. The walls of this remote village in rural Sonsonate are marked with gang symbols, but Shy Boy passes the graffiti disinterestedly. He's not looking for a local homeboy. He changes direction several times finally spotting what he is after—his brother Jose's grave.

Edgar tells the same story I have heard from his mother Ana and his brother Hugo. He is haunted by a three-year-old's memory of soldiers torturing and killing his uncles and other villagers in a soccer field a few miles from this one near his brother's tomb. He remembers the bravery of his grandmother, who withstood the blows of soldiers for refusing to tell them where his father, 21, a guerrilla fighter, was hiding. The fierce bond of loyalty and code of silence that saved their father is emulated by the surviving Bolaños sons.

The boys were raised by their peasant grandparents until their mother Ana, who had fled El Salvador in 1983 because of her husband's guerrilla involvement and the consequent army threats on her life, could send for them to join her in Los Angeles. The reunion, which took six years, was difficult. The boys clashed, first with their new stepfather and then with Chicano gang members in school. It was not long before Hugo and José joined the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Edgar was only 13 when, to his mother's dismay, he followed in his big brother's footsteps.

"My mom brought me back here to El Salvador because José told her some Eighteenth Street gang members were going to kill me in Los Angeles," Edgar says in a low voice. "The bullet meant for me got him instead."

Ana Bolanos remembers events differently. She thought that bringing her youngest son to El Salvador to live with her mother would keep Edgar in school and safe from the life in and out of U.S. prisons that her eldest son Hugo seemed destined to live. But shortly after she brought Edgar to El Salvador, Hugo was deported. A few months later José, who had remained in L.A., was murdered in a drive-by shooting. "They killed my son because he was in love with a girl from the Eighteenth Street gang," Ana recalls tearfully. "They found them together in a parked car. José was killed, but the girl survived."

Edgar reacted by taking his dead brother's gang name-Shy Boy. Shortly after José's body was brought from L.A. for burial in El Salvador, Edgar had a tombstone with the name Shy Boy tattooed on his back. Within a few months, he left his grandmother's house and began hanging out in the gang crash pads of San Salvador where he lives today.

During pre-dusk hours when school children in crumpled uniforms race home past the maquila factory workers wearily descending from buses, Shy Boy and his friends emerge alert and ready for business. They scatter in clusters around their cul-de-sac. Several move towards a grocery store, displaying their crop of gold chains and other "hot" items for interested buyers.

A middle-aged woman with stern Indian features balances a basket of fruit on her head as she glides past the graffiti-sprayed walls. Three not so muscular youths in tight muscle shirts wave their tattooed arms wildly, throwing gang hand signs and flirting to grab her attention. Finally she cracks a smile. Wiping her hands on her stained ruffled apron, she lowers her basket. The boys laugh as mango juice escapes from their lips. She laughs with them.

Shy Boy, aloof and elusive, takes in the scene. "People here think I'm the gang leader because I used to live in Los Angeles," he says almost wistfully. "But we don't have leaders. I have respect from the homeboys, but I don't tell other people what to do."

This corner and the surrounding streets of this working-class enclave are Big Gangsta Locos territory. About 30 youths belong to BGLS, a subgroup or clique of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, or MS, gang of Los Angeles. Apart from Shy Boy, all of the mostly 15- and 16-year-old "gangstas" in this enclave have never lived outside El Salvador. Shy Boy, who will soon turn 19, is the oldest member of the group. Although he may not be the leader, it is clear from the way the others approach and quietly confer with him that his opinions are highly regarded.

As night falls, the homeboys begin to make their rounds, setting off in groups of twos or threes to check out who is on their turf. "We protect the people here from enemy gangs and thieves who would rob them," Shy Boy says proudly. "We never steal from our own barrio. That is why we get along with people here."

It is true that many people stop to chat or joke with the youths as they saunter along. But just as many tense or clutch their children tighter, not daring to look at the tattooed faces they hurry past. And the resentful stares of a small group of men—among them an off-duty police officer and the owner of the local bus route—follow the youths as they progress down the lane.

Two blocks over, a foot patrol of the National Civilian Police stop and briskly frisk Shy Boy, Flash and Scrappy. They sternly demand identification papers, which none of the youths have. Finding neither drugs nor weapons, they let the boys go with an angry warning to go home and stay out of trouble. "They're not doing anything right now," the cop remarks to no one in particular. "But when they get drunk and stoned they are a plague on these streets."

Shy Boy admits that many of the homeboys get into street fights when they are drunk or stoned. He himself recently suffered permanent loss of feeling and movement in three fingers after a neighborhood drunk (not a gang member) severed the nerves in his right hand with a machete. The same man attacked Scrappy, leaving him with several dangerously deep gashes to the head. "We were really high so we didn't even know what was happening," Shy Boy recalls. "No one came to help us. I guess it's a miracle that we're still alive."

Indeed it is no small miracle. According to the Pan American Health Organization, El Salvador's per capita homicide rate of 150 per 100,000 is the highest in the hemisphere, surpassing even Colombia.[1] This means that violence—if defined by the annual homicide rate, the most commonly cited measure of crime and violence in general—is greater in El Salvador now than during the 1980s, when civil war grabbed international headlines and hundreds of thousands of peasant refugees escaping mayhem and economic collapse sought sanctuary in the crowded slums of Los Angeles.[2]

Shy Boy lists the names of homeboys killed in shoot outs with rival gangs. There are five he knew well. As he continues his honor roll of MS dead, he mentions a homeboy I first met in Los Angeles. After his deportation to El Salvador, Chino was executed with a bullet to the head and found with his thumbs tied behind his back. La Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow, a paramilitary-style death squad that targets gang members in El Salvador, claimed responsibility for his murder.

Chino was executed in the spring of 1995, just before The Washington Post reported a spate of death squad-style killings in El Salvador that left more than 30 youths dead in less than two months. At the time, the Roman Cathiolic Church's Legal Aid Office, Tutela Legal, charged that the vigilante groups included active members of the newly formed civilian police force. Created under the 1992 Peace Accords, the National Civilian Police replaced the security forces associated with the repressive military regimes of the preceeding years and are supposed to provide democratic and nonpartisan law enforcement. By 1995 several Black Shadow vigilantes—police agents with ties to the old terror networks of the 1970s and 1980s—had been arrested for the 1994 extrajudicial killings of three Mara Salvatrucha members in the eastern city of San Miguel.[3] Since then, the numbers of murders by death squads has been less dramatic. But they continue—sometimes unnoticed except by grieving family members, sometimes acknowledged in the Salvadoran press or in human rights statistics.

The criminal violence of vigilantes acting against youth gang members is seldom vigorously investi-gated in El Salvador. And many Salvadoran citizens do not care. They are fearful and angered by the rising assault and homicide rates they read about as they sip their morning coffee. Newspaper reports mentioning youth are, with few exceptions, stories about crime or the menace of the maras, the Salvadoran term for gangs. Most callers who responded to a call-in poll conducted by YSU, one of El Salvador's most popular radio stations, supported The Black Shadow, and some even invited the group to come clean up their neighborhoods. [4] Several Salvadoran newspapers have published poll results in which nearly half of respondents support the "social cleansing" activities of the death squads that target those perceived as criminals.[5]

The press focus is on Eighteenth Street and Mara Salvatrucha—two Los Angeles gangs that have grown rapidly in El Salvador. Every week La Prensa Gráfica and Diario De Hoy—the country's largest-circulating dailies—include several crime stories featuring photographs of defiant teenagers tattooed with gang symbols and waving gang hand signs. The reporting is often sensationalistic and riddled with rumor and irresponsible speculation.

One striking example is a story about the 1995 prison murder of a well-known MS gang member named Ozzy. The front-page news accounts of his gang funeral claimed that MS was on the verge of collapse because the group's leader had been killed by the Eighteenth Street gang. Ozzy, though well-known, was not the MS gang chieftain the press claimed he was. The stories revealed little understanding of the power hierarchy in Salvadoran prisons, where U.S. deportees from both Eighteenth Street and Mara Salvatrucha at times band together as "fellow Americans" in a hostile environment. Sensationalist news accounts blamed Eighteenth Street for Ozzy's death, nearly precipitating a bloody street vendetta between the rival gangs.

Such reporting feeds the vengeful thinking that escalates violence while fostering public perceptions that U.S. deportees and marginal youth are the principal perpetrators of violent crime. According to gang members in El Salvador and Los Angeles who knew Ozzy well, he had become helplessly addicted to cocaine by the time of his murder. They allege that his death was not the work of Eighteenth Street, but of drug traffiickers who—with the help of prison guards—smuggle cocaine to incarcerated addicts. "Ozzy owed a lot of people a lot of money when he died," one youth told me. "Why don't you reporters ever write about the really big guys?"

Rodrigo Avila, director of the National Civilian Police, admits that deported U.S. gang members are only one factor in the violent crime wave. He also blames crime rings, increased drug trafficking, an abundance of arms left over from the war, and disgruntled former soldiers and guerrillas who have become bandits. Avila says he is as frustrated as the average Salvadoran citizen over police inability to contain crime. Defining who the criminals are is something he hopes will become easier with a new computerized system for tracking criminal cases. With assistance from International Criminal Investigation and Training Program (ICITNP), a U.S. Department of Justice police training program, the city of Santa Ana began implementing a tracking system last year. Every case will be documented from the first complaint call, through to the investigation, arrest and conviction stages.

Avila believes that in the future, this system will yield more complete and accurate crime data than is currently available. And this, he says, will make police efforts more effective.

Perhaps, but you don't need a computer or a crystal ball to predict where Salvadoran demographics and economics are headed. Nearly half the country's population is under 18 and three quarters of Salvadoran children live in poverty.[6] What is changing is perception—the fact, for example, that Salvadorans now experience their poverty and define themselves through the window of television.[7] Even if most impoverished Salvadoran youths could aspire to a maquila factory job—the fastest growing sector of the Salvadoran economy—they would earn the Salvadoran minimum wage of $4 a day. With the price of a pound of beans—the Salvadoran staple food—the same as it is in the United States, such wages barely ensure subsistence. At the same time, slick television advertising and the aggressive marketing of American youth culture have whetted the consumer desires of a generation that will largely be unable to satisfy those desires or even their most basic needs through work.

Of the 800,000 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 who comprise 14% of the total population of El Salvador, UNICEF estimates that only 40% attended school and 29% work.[8]

Miguel Cruz, who teaches at the Jesuit-run Central American University, seems an unlikely expert on the attractions of gang life. It is difficult to imagine this mild intellectual, who conducts political campaign surveys and public opinion polls, approaching gang members, much less training them. But that is exactly what Professor Cruz has done. "We trained gang members to be investigators for our public opinion survey of the gangs," he explains, "because we realized that if a bunch of university professors and students could even get gang members to talk to us, the responses would have been much different."

Cruz's survey of over 1,000 gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha and Eighteenth Street gangs in San Salvador offers evidence that most gang members are seeking respect and friendship as well as an identity and a replacement family. Twice as many respondents considered drug addiction their biggest problem as compared with the next highest-ranked problem, unemployment. When asked about their future dreams, jobs topped the list followed by a stable family. More than 80% of the youth interviewed said that violence is a negative aspect of gang life that they desperately wish would end. Nearly 70% had experienced the murder of a close friend or family member and half had themselves been injured badly enough to require hospitalization. The vast majority are fatalistic about change and skeptical of politics.

The emergence of youth gangs in El Salvador with ties to gangs in Los Angeles is in many ways a story of changing U.S. immigration policy. It is also a story of modern economic dislocation—the disappearance of traditional economies and the rise of new crack cocaine markets. At one time a drug transshipment country with no internal market for cocaine beyond the small elite class, El Salvador now has crack houses in its slums. Smoking primos joints of crack mixed with marijuana-is a common part of gang life, and homeboys often support their own drug habits by selling drugs. Add to this the cultural dislocation which has lead to a triumph of consumerism and advertising over politics, and the saga of El Salvador assumes an historical irony of tragic proportions.

Throughout the 1980s, the main U.S. foreign policy objective in El Salvador was to defeat the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist guerrilla movement which threatened to topple the Salvadoran government. The reasons why this peasant insurgency failed to take power in El Salvador are numerous. But it took $4 billion dollars in U.S. military aid, tens of thousands of lives and intense pressure and mobilization by solidarity activists in the United States to convince Washington to support a negotiated settlement to the war.[9]

During this period, the Salvadoran countryside was littered with the dismembered bodies of thousands of teachers, labor activists and other advocates of social change. A vocal minority in the United States became outraged and a national network of churches and religious organizations united to form the sanctuary movement-an underground railroad that brought political refugees to safety in the United States in defiance of U.S. immigration law. The carnage in EI Salvador and neighboring Guatemala also motivated a generation of U.S. immigration lawyers to argue pro bono political asylum cases for refugees fleeing the repressive regimes that Washington supported.

1992 was a fateful year for El Salvador. The signing of the Salvadoran Peace Accords ended the war, but did not solve the economic inequities which inspired it. Since then, Salvadorians have faced the task of rebuilding their traumatized country and broken families with diminished interest and support from the U.S. solidarity movement, church workers and journalists, who have redirected their triage human rights efforts to Bosnia and elsewhere. In that same year, during the riots sparked by the brutal beating of Rodney King, nearly 1,000 Salvadoran youths were rounded up in Los Angeles by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and deported to El Salvador. In the months that followed, L.A.'s simmering anti-immigrant backlash took on dynamic new force, and public attitudes toward juvenile offenders in the United States became more punitive. The INS launched its Violent Gang Task Force in 1992, ushering in a new era of immigration and criminal justice policy by targeting large numbers of immigrants with criminal records for deportation to their countries of origin—even if they had lived most of their lives in the United States.

In 1997 alone nearly 1,500 Salvadorans with criminal records were deported from U.S. streets and prisons according to the INS.[10] And these figures do not reflect the many more expulsions that occur as "voluntary departures" rather than formal deportations. Many among the criminal deportees belong to Eighteenth Street or Mara Salvatrucha.

Los Angeles police estimate that Eighteenth Street, the largest Latino gang in L.A., may have as many as 20,000 members.[11] Though it is primarily a Chicano gang, Salvadoran youths who live in the Pico Union district of L.A., a territory controlled by Eighteenth Street, would be more likely to join this gang. The rival Mara Salvatrucha gang is much smaller but is one of L.A.'s fastest-growing gangs. It began in the early 1980s when Salvadoran teenagers clashed with black and Chicano gangs at school. At first nearly all members of Mara Salvatrucha were Salvadoran. Now in its second decade, MS has come of age through the U.S. prison system. Like other territorial gangs, it has many Mexican, Chicano and even a few black members from the neighborhoods it controls.

Since the beginning of this century, gangs have been part of the proving ground of manhood for a significant portion of working-class men in Los Angeles. In the old days, Latino gang members fought with fists or knives and could "mature out" of their adolescent associations by landing union jobs that provided generations of Mexican and Chicano factory workers decent working-class wages. But industrial jobs began drying up or moving south of the border long before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) officially acknowledged and enshrined the shift.

The '80s generation of Salvadoran refugees arrived in a post-industrial Los Angeles. Many worked low-wage jobs as gardeners, restaurant workers and nannies. The remittance dollars they sent home to El Salvador during the war years surpassed the annual U.S. aid budget and today continue to outperform El Salvador's coffee exports as a source of foreign exchange. But while the dollars sent to El Salvador bought school uniforms and books for eager school-bound children back "home," many of the latchkey kids being raised in the United States were cutting class.

In L.A.'s housing projects or residential tracts where identical single-family dwellings line asphalt swathes stretching into oblivion, young people are growing up alone. They are neglected, feared or shunned by their fragmented communities and their own overworked and often troubled parents. Broken families, alcoholism and—for many Salvadoran immigrant children—unacknowledged war trauma exacerbate the feelings of rebellion that accompany adolescence. Raised on violent television icons and American consumer dreams, many Salvadoran immigrant children disdain and fear the drudgery of their parents' lives. In the wake of factory closings, the crack economy has brought a do-it-yourself code of entrepreneurship and vigilante justice to the streets. Armed gangs have become its brutal enforcers.

Immigrant parents often blame the uncontrollable behavior of their children or the frightening violence of their wayward street lives on an American culture of permissiveness. They complain that their own kids threaten to report them to the Department of Child Welfare or the INS if they use corporal punishment-the disciplinary norm in El Salvador. For many angry adolescents, gangs seem to offer it all—street protection, refuge from problems or beatings at home, an alternative family and financial rewards impossible to attain flipping hamburgers at McDonald's. The gang's lure can also transcend class and political background —issues of their parents' generation. As Shy Boy explains it, "only a homeboy can understand. All the homeboys have suffered something. That is why we are so united , "A few of the Salvadoran "gangstas" I have met in L.A. and El Salvador were themselves child combatants on both sides of El Salvador's civil war. Others like Shy Boy witnessed politically motivated executions of family or members of their community. Nearly all have experienced some kind of deep trauma. Fellowship born of shared suffering and a lust for vengeance are attractions of gang life and, to a degree, hallmarks of the adolescent's emotional world. Overcoming alienation, finding forgiveness for oneself or for others—these are more complex emotional passages. The path to attainment is seldom straight.

Weaving through the streets of South Central L.A., Alex Sánchez tells me he is taking me on a mission. He's been meeting with homeboys and homegirls from both MS and Eighteenth Street who want to start a self-help program. Sensing my skepticism, Alex adds defensively, "This is serious. We've all done a lot of negative things. I want to do something positive for my neighborhood, help the other homies get some courses, some skills, jobs. They need to see some of us doing it in order to believe they can too." As Alex rattles through his list of names I feel heartened. When we first met in 1993, many among this unlikely collection of homeboys and homegirls were only too) ready to kill or die for their gangs.

"You're going to love Mirna" Alex says, laughing heartily as we screech to a halt outside the home of the group's newest member. "She's been through a lot, but the girl is solid" he says, knocking on the steel grillwork protecting her iron door.

Alex is right. Mirna Solorzano, a 22-year old single mother of three, strikes me as steadfast from the first handshake. After hearing her story, I realize just how resilient she is.

As she tells it, Mirna's childhood home life had all the intensity of a political movement. Her father was a tradeunion leader who fled death squads in El Salvador on the underground railroad of the sanctuary movement. She was going to political rallies from age five, when her family arrived in L.A. "My parents were fighting to be free, for El Salvador to be free and all that, but it got to such an extreme that I hated the guerrillas they supported. I felt, 'Why do I always have to be later on, later on,' she says, gesturing her parents' presumed dismissal of her with her hands. "I wanted to go out, have fun."

The "cause" eventually strained her parents' fragile marriage past the breaking point. Mimra's mother began an affair with a family friend who years later became her stepfather. But when her mother was absent, the man made sexual advances to 12-year-old Mima and threatened to hurt her if she revealed that he was fondling her. For months Mirna lived in fear with her secret until she bravely tried to tell her mother. But the man who was sexually abusing her persuaded Mirna's mother she was lying. "I hated him and I hated my mother for believing him and not me," she says heatedly. By age 14 she was running away from home and attempting suicide.

Eighteenth Street gang crash pads became her refuge, and "gangstas" became her guerrilla fighters. "My homeboys tried to kill him once because of what he did to me," she says referring to her stepfather's advances. "And if he had gone to prison he'd be dead because the homeboys in jail, they were waiting for him." She continues philosophically, "The way I see it, it's all the same thing. If you're from the FMLN you're hard core. You fight for your country, program, whatever. Tiat's how gangstas are. If somebody disrespects our neighborhood we throw down, we fight."

It took a nervous breakdown and hospitalization at age 18 to change Mirna's course. Mirna credits her therapist and social worker for the transformation that has sent her back to school and helped her begin to reconcile with her mother and to develop a new, mutually respectful rela-tionship with her father. Squeezing her son Edwin's hand she adds, "I joined this group to help other young people involved with gangs. But I won't make the same mistake my parents made with me. My kids come first before any program' "

Other group members have equally charged stories. One working single father illegally reentered the United States in order to support and raise his three-year-old American son. Another is the middle-class daughter of a former guerrilla urban commando who was tortured in El Salvador's clandestine prisons. Still another is the son of a Salvadoran soldier from the elite Belloso battalion. They have all come a long way from the suspicious angry youths I first encountered.

Their fledgling effort faces challenges, but they have found supporters. Members of Senator Tom Hayden's staff and individual activists from the old Central America network provide encouragement and some basic material assistance. And they have been inspired by the example of Homies Unidos, a group with similar goals, which formed in El Salvador a year and a half ago.

Homies Unidos is unique among the handful of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with gang members in El Salvador. It is the only one which includes more than a few token U.S. deportees from rival gangs. It is also the only organization directed by youths who themselves are involved in gangs. And since there is no budget for salaries, it is staffed by volunteers. Their meetings may seem disorganized or contentious, but it is clear that the group's eclectic range of activities—English classes, engraving artwork on mirrors, running workshops on HIV, hosting poetry slams and learning computer graphics skills—have enhanced the self-esteem of individual members. The group has begun giving talks on violence prevention to youth in physical-rehabilitation programs in San Salvador hospitals. The amputee or wheel-chair-bound kids are usually victims of shootings or grenades used in clashes between rival gangs. Several members of Homies Unidos have recorded their own rap songs to get their anti-violence message across to other youth. The group's mentor, Magdaleno Rose Avila, former executive director of the Los Angeles-based Cesar Chavez Foundation, stresses the Chavez legacy of nonviolence and the importance of Homies Unidos in giving gang members a place to belong and make peace with their old "enemies."

Despite the glimmer of light offered by reintegration or violence-prevention programs like Homies Unidos, the "big picture" in El Salvador is grim. The Salvadoran government's response to youth violence has been to suppress the gangs through repressive measures such as emergency crime legislation suspending rights of habeus corpus, the reinstatement of the death penalty, and the formation of special anti-gang police units trained by experts from the Los Angeles Police Department. Reform of the juvenile justice code and modest improvements in prison conditions followed a spate of violent prison uprisings in which inmates were hacked to death by other prisoners wielding knives. But the antiquated judicial system is rife with corruption. Prisons are currently filled to more than double their capacity and 77% of those incarcerated in El Salvador are unconvicted prisoners awaiting trial.12 Bribes buy murderers instant freedom while innocent indigents languish in unsanitary and overcrowded cells for up to two years before their cases are heard and dismissed.

The Salvadoran gangs have their own informal judi-cial system. At one "hearing" a young woman in tight jeans and a midriff-blouse addresses the "court" glaring at the accused. "He had no right to touch me," she shouts. "He put his hands all over me. I was waiting for the bus." Wagging her fingers and waving her arms, she adds in threatening tones, "I am a married woman and my husband is very, very angry." Standing beneath a tree, children in tow, her spouse nods his silent agreement.

Facing her, the young man accused of the misdeed begins moving forward, sweat pouring from his brow. Several youths step up to block his path to her, as he denies the charges.

The crowd listens as the accusations and counter accusations. When someone interrupts to defend the accused, the gathering erupts in unruly shouting as all seek to air their views or seize the opportunity to vent unrelated grievances.

Spider restores order, giving each homeboy from the Big Gangsta Locos a chance to speak. Spider motions the accused and his brother Spike to his side. The verdict is unspoken but understood.

Within seconds, dust clouds explode as the sentence is meted out. The crowd of homeboys and onlookers cheer and shout like spectators at a cock fight as Spike pummels the other youth with his fists. After the beating, the face of the accused is caked blood and dust as he slowly staggers away.

But it is not over. "That's all you are going to do," the woman demands of Spider incredulously. From the back of the crowd the humiliated youth winces in pain moaning, "I had no idea she was married to a homeboy."

Shy Boy is among the gang elders who begin persuading both parties that justice has been served and the incident must now be forgotten. Gradually the woman calms down as her husband wordlessly indicates his acceptance. Spike embraces the punished homeboy, they do their gang handshake and everyone relaxes.

"The vato"—the Chicano slang equivalent of "young blood" and short for vato loco, the crazy young guy-— "molested the homeboy's wife," Shy Boy explains. "If sh

Tags: El Salvador, gangs, youth, poverty, Los Angeles

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