On my way home from work, I stopped by a small restaurant off the main autopista (highway), and ran into a friend I had met with some professionals I know in San Salvador. We chatted for some time over a few beers, and I received a less on gangs from this “half-gringo” who was sent back here from the States some years back.
Damon was born in El Salvador, and his family migrated to the U.S. when he was a child, so his primary language became English and his Spanish was basic and choppy. He moved in with his aunt’s family, staying in a champa (shack), behind her house, overlooking a quebrada (creek) for 8 months. Each morning he awoke to the odour of fecal matter and desechos (waste) that run through the creek. He was scared sh*tless of the gangs here, and convinced he would be a target, because he was part of the Norteño gang in San Francisco.
His aunt’s family has always lived in their neighborhood, and has known the now-adult gang members who live there since they were toddlers, so they were able to buffer him from a hard landing here. Before Damon arrived, they spoke with the local gang members, and thanks to the long standing relationship his relatives have with them, no one there ever touched him. He said the gang leader in the neighborhood, a fairly burly guy, told other members to ‘lay off’ Damon. He told me they resented that he didn’t walk past them with his head held down, like he should in front of them.
Tired of living with the fumes from the creek in his champa, Damon moved to a neighborhood in Ilopango, hoping for some relief. Shortly after arriving, he was visited by some of the locals, who told him in so many words, ‘if you want to live here, you have to kill someone.’ He was not given a choice on gang membership or activities. Damon took a bus to San Salvador and began looking for an apartment ‘toute suite’. 3 days later he was out of there. He tells me that after his close brush with the gangs there, another deportee from the U.S. moved into that same colonia (neighborhood). He was killed, most likely for refusing to accept the gang’s ‘offer.
Early in our conversation, Damon told me one of his primary reasons for living and staying on the straight and narrow is because he has a daughter. His daughter’s mother more a friend than anything else, and their relationship was not very extensive, so Damon did not know he was a father until 3 months after his daughter was born. The mom is hard to track down, and basically dumps the baby off with her mother or now live-in boyfriend to go off and party. Damon would like a relationship with his little girl, and ultimately get custody of her, but efforts to reach her mom have been disappointing. Her mom’s new boyfriend does not want Damon to have contact her, out of jealousy. A mutual friend of theirs says leave her alone, he may be looking for trouble. It sounds like the mom may be mixed up with gang members, which could make Damon’s attempts at communication and custody life-threatening. This mutual friend is gang-affiliated in El Salvador, so Damon is currently heeding his warnings, but he still holds the hope of getting his daughter through the legal system here.
On gangs and homicides:
- You are required to kill someone in the other gang as an initiation rite.
- What’s more, some gangs or cliques within them have a rule that you must kill someone every day. Well, gee, that might explain the 12+ murders a day taking place in El Salvador, wouldn’t it?
Damon explained how the gangs are broken out at a high level in California and why he was terrified of moving here.
- Norteños / Sureño – these names refer to gangs in the Nothern and Southern parts of California
- Sureños = OK with 18 and MS. This is due to these gangs originating in SoCal / Los Angeles.
Since he was affiliated with the Nortenos, Damon’s fear of coming here was a healthy one. He even pleaded with the courts in the United States not to send him here, for asylum reasons, but did not have luck. He was charged with a felony, and it was an ‘aggravated’ charge that involved weapons. Damon has since learned more about the immigration laws since his deportation, and thinks he is here for good. When you have a felony that involves drugs or weapons, he said, there’s not much hope for going back.
Damon explained that Salvadoran gang members who go up to the United States are just as afraid of U.S. gang members, particularly the Norteños, as he was of the gang element here.
I told him that’s comical, because look at what the gangs do here, with almost no boundaries, for me there is not much comparison. We digressed into a discussion of how the gangs here seem to have no limits, and Damon explained some things he knew about moral codes up North. He mentioned, for instance, that gangs won’t do drive-by shootings now unless they are certain no one else is there, because little children often gotten caught up in the crossfire before. In comparison the Salvadoran gangs don’t have many boundaries. One only needs to read the paper or watch the news for 10 minutes to see there is no moral code for the Salvadoran gangs. The ‘burning bus’ incident in June of 2010 is a painful shared memory among us, those living in El Salvador at that time, of how far the gangs have veered from the original reasons why they were founded.
Gangs, Damon says, were created in the jails years ago for protection. (According to what’s found on the net that I’ve researched, I think they also established them outside the jails to protect themselves in tough neighborhoods, too). In jail, people join a gang for protection, and it’s race-based, according to him. He explained that the Bloods and the Crips actually get along with each other IN jail, which I would not have suspected. People of African American descent – Bloods and Crips. Hispanic-Latino – Norteños or Sureños (or likely the MS or 18 gang). Caucasions, he said – Skinheads. Everyone else is “other” he says, and they don’t have a gang for protection. I’m reminded of the movie, Gran Torino, and would like to circle back and ask Damon about Koreans and other Asians and if they build cliques (local factions of large gangs) in jail.
We talked about “La Vida Loca,” a documentary about the 18th street gang shot here in El Salvador.
Sadly, the videographer from Spain who created the film, Christian Poveda, was killed, and there are many theories as to why the “18” killed him. Damon said though they agreed to be filmed for the documentary, they may have been pissed that they “made them look bad.” The most positive light in which he showed them was, Damon said….”Bakers?” (in reference to the journalist’s helping them create bakeries as a means for making a living outside of crime). Defending the filmmaker, I said the gang-members make themselves look bad, mimicking that stupid “M” hand-gesture they like to make often in of the camera. And many with tattoos on their faces. Kinda hard not to look stupid when you do stuff like that, I said.
I mentioned how I’d heard that gangs (I believe on NPR), decades back, like in the 1980s, in areas like Detroit actually DID help their local communities at times, using funds from their criminal activities to actually make an impact. Why can’t they do something like THAT, here? I asked. How about putting together some money for a kid in the colonia who needs an operation that will cost several grand, to save his life or health? I don’t see them doing a lot of actual “Good” for their communities except for providing ‘protection’ to their neighbors, some of whom are charged dearly for that service, like local restaurant owners.
Speaking of which, Damon mentioned that the pub we were sitting in, and pretty much “all” of them along this strip behind the Hotel Intercontinental, pay “rent” to the gangs. Except for one guy, he says. The guy who owns BILLY’S (pseudonym) doesn’t play around. He even hires local police to work for him as ‘vigilantes’ (private security guards), even though the practice is prohibited. He pays them well and no one stops him.
We talked about how gangs are becoming more sophisticated now. Damon says “You know what my profile is of a gang member, Now? It’s a kid with those tight (emo) style pants and spikey hair. He doesn’t have any tattoos, and you can’t tell he’s a gang member.” Here in this bar, that guy over there could be a gang member, or maybe he is” said Damon, gesturing to people around us. This is something that is becoming almost common knowledge for anyone who knows about Salvadoran gangs. As we march further into this millennium, gangs are becoming slicker; they are dropping the tradition of wearing tattoos, which has often worked against them. And they are actively infiltrating new demographics. My husband and I read reports of university kids that were busted for working in car-theft gangs.
One hope I have with the new gang sophistication is that maybe they will loosen the tradition of homicide as an initiation rite. It may serve the purpose of “proving oneself” to the gangs, but from a practical perspective, it generates no fruit. It doesn’t make a dent at diminishing the number of members in the opposing gang, as kids are recruited daily – often by force. All it does is create a daily bloodbath and an endless song of weeping mother’s broken hearts.
And what about the “big wins” we see on TV here in El Salvador to combat the gangs? I couldn’t help but bring up “surprise ambushes” the police force execute to pick up local members. They make themselves look ridiculous by plucking the low hanging fruit, I said. Typical video footage we see on the news often consists of: several masked policemen grouped in front of a house at around 4:00am. (Note, the Salvadoran media agencies have been invited to shoot and publicize yet another ‘successful capture’). The cops then bang down the door of what’s usually an adobe house, often with unfinished adobe walls on the inside, decorated with scant furniture indicative of a poor mans home, where a poor family lives in one of the poorest of colonias. All this to pick up just a handful of low level gang members. Big Friggin’ deal. How about the big guys, I asked. Where are they? Howcum we don’t see any of THEM getting ambushed at 4am?
“Oh, that’s cuz they’re all in jail,” he says. Incredulous, I say “Are you serious? You mean to tell me there aren’t any ‘big guys’ outside that they can pick up?” Most of them are in jail, he insisted. The jails in El Salvador are like “offices” for the gangs. They are basically the headquarters, and most orders from up high in the gangs come from the higher level members inside the jails. Reports that I have read on murders here do echo his statements. A statistic I recall reading off the top of my head is something like 20% of all murders in El Salvador are coming from orders sent by cell phones located inside of jails. Yeah. Home offices sending out daily execution orders.
Clearly, local economics comes into play for increasing gang membership. Damon said young kids are lured in with phrases like “Why would you want to work for $5 a day when you and I can get $50 from the people on that bus right NOW.”
Where do you think things are headed, in the future, Gangs in El Salvador? I asked Damon. The answer was short and simple. Gangs are never going to go away, he said.
Interestingly, Damon believes that Mauricio Funes has ‘cleaned up’ a lot of the gang problems since he came into office. I found that very interesting, and even challenged him on that, since I moved here several months before he came into office. He insisted that it’s gotten better. It’s going on 5 years since Damon’s been here, and since he’s much closer to the situation, with a near-insider’s perspective, I’m inclined to believe him.
As we walked out of the pub, I pointed out the name of the bar across the street, with a laugh: “The Drunkard.” Despite the sobering reality of ‘la situacion’ (the situation) with crime here in El Salvador, you never run out of things here that make you laugh.