An Unexpected Lesson on Gangs   11 comments

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.

Posted August 23, 2011 by El Salvador from the Inside in Living in El Salvador

11 responses to “An Unexpected Lesson on Gangs

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  1. Interesting read. I especially liked your comment about gangs here not doing any “good” deeds in their communities. When we lived in the Cuidad Pacifica the gangs there loved to pick on the tortilla ladies. I used to ask my husband why they don’t take a more “Robin Hood” approach to their crimes. Pick on the big guys, like pizza hut and the pollo chains. And then use some of those proceeds to help their communities. Seriously, how much money can a pupuseria be forced to pay compared to a Pollo Campestre? His response was simple. They are bullies. They pray only the weak. And I am by no means advocating gang violence or extortion, I’m just saying if you are going to do something wrong, do it right.

    • I don’t know much about Ciudad Pacifica, but it sounds like it’s near / in San Miguel? A guy who works at a restaurant near our house moved here from San Miguel b/c he got shot at out there. Pizza Hut and the rest of ’em have video cameras and vigilantes, so instead they go for the poorest, easiest targets. Cuz they’re cucarachas. Parasitical creeps.

  2. What a great description of the current gang situation in El Salvador! After living there for 13 months, I experienced everything you wrote. Things got so bad in our town that my daughter and I actually moved back to the States. My husband is still there. He has told me before about how the “initiation” into the gangs is to shoot someone. It just makes me sick. So many little children are getting sucked in now too. Just a few weeks ago, mi suegra was on the bus and about 4 kids no older than 12 got on pointing guns in everyone’s faces demanding all their money and anything they had. Luckily my suegra knows better and keeps her money in her bra! But it just shows the way the country is going and it’s not good. Most of the police are a joke in my opinion, which is sad.

  3. Thanks for writing this insightful description. I appreciate the perspective which is different from other accounts I have read, and fits with what I have seen and heard when I spend time in our sister church community.

  4. Interesting story which contains more details than expected after a beer or two. I was there during the war years and gangs were not really the “in” thing in El Salvador. Actually the gangs in El Salvador were imported from the United States as Salvadoran gang members were deported back to El Salvador after crimes committed in the US. Those gang members imported their gang tactics into El Salvador and have flourished ever since then. The Madre Salvatrucha is a prime example. As Salvadorans escaped their country during the civil war years many destine to California they were poor, humble and wanted to make the best of a terrible situation. However, being humble the Salvadoran younger boys were no match for the Mexican gangs formed in West LA until one day they said…no mas (no more) and formed the MS 13 to be one of the most ruthless gangs there. MS 13 exported their know how to the East coast of the US and those deported back to El Salvador started their own groups. Yes, you had to be tough and gutless to be a member of MS 13 and commit a terrible crime to include murder to be a member. Most members of MS 13 are below the age of 18 so as not be serve long prison time and be tried as a minor. I remember one case that a three boy minor group kidnapped and murdered Federico Block, the ex CEO of TACA. They kidnapped him and murdered him claiming that the crime was tied to passion alluding that Block had a duel personality and he wanted to break it off. Many believe that this was the initiation for these juveniles to become full pledge members of the gang. Their trial was in juvenile court and the trigger man who was 16+ was sent to juvenile detention until he reached the age of 18 and was released. MS 13 is all over the US now, Central America, Mexico and other places in the world and number in the thousands if not 10,000s. That gang and no other visible gang were in existence during the war years in El Salvador but with the break down in law and order after the war, a condition for peace by the FMLN included the disbanding of the old Policia Nacional (PN), the Guardia Nacional, the Policia de Hacienda (Treasurer Police) all in one swoop allowed local gangs to flourish for protection purposes as there was no real law and order as the new Policia Nacional Civil (PCN) was being formed and recruits trained. The terrible economic (mainly unemployment) and political situation (s) in El Salvador are the main culprits for this. These gangs have resorted in extortion to all they can reach for their finances and lately have moved threatening lower grade schools forcing them to pay “protection.” Ok, this is just a glimpse on your story as there is much more and my comments can be as long as your article.

    • Hi Rene, and thank you for commenting. I’m going to respond to a statement of yours in quotes below, because I think it’s important to note the true causes behind why gangs exist and thrive in El Salvador today.

      “the gangs in El Salvador were imported from the United States as Salvadoran gang members were deported back to El Salvador after crimes committed in the US. Those gang members imported their gang tactics into El Salvador and have flourished ever since then. ”

      An outsider who reads an article in the NY Times about El Salvador will likely go bleating at some middle class party in an urban metro area of the U.S. something to the effect of “Oh, if the U.S. didn’t involve itself in that dirty war in El Salvador in the 80’s and didn’t forcibly deport all those gang members, El Salvador wouldn’t have all those gangs down there today.”

      I think you and I both understand the major reasons why gangs thrive in El Salvador today, essentially because of the incredibly weak economy and after-effects of the war, and it’s important to set the story straight and correct misguided ideas about why E.S has a gang problem. My counter-argument for anyone who says gangs exist in El Salvador because The U.S. deported them there during the war is this: if gang members were imported to El Salvador from the United States then why is the gang problem in El Salvador so much WORSE than in the United States and SoCal (where they originated from)? The “seeds” were formed in the U.S. with Salvadoran kids defending themselves in gangs there during the 1980s. But the deported gang seeds sent to El Salvador were germinated here by a war and post-war environment and then grew and thrived with the beating sun and rain of a weak Salvadoran economy that provides little opportunities for its youth. Do we see gang-related problems as the primary headline news daily in the U.S. like we do in El Salvador? NO! And why is that? Because the United States has an E-C-O-N-O-M-Y. But I will say that as the United States continues to slide downward, losing it’s position as numero uno in the global economy, you’ll see gang violence appear in more and more headlines there in the years to come.

      Your comments about gang membership worldwide are interesting and I think many Americans are not aware of how much of a threat they could become. I sat on the plane next to a man who was active military a few years back and he mentioned, similar to your comments about the growing membership of MS in major U.S cities – I cannot remember now which city it was – but he threw a very large number out, of active members in just in that one city, and it was tens of thousands.

      Thanks for highlighting the legal reasons why so many members are younger than 18, protects so many of them who are over 18, doesn’t it?

      Yes, the stuff they are doing now in schools these days is scary. The body count for dead students in El Salvador now is something up around 175 total for the year, or more – and we’re only in September. What’s so sad is that if that were happening in the U.S. it would be all over the news, the president making speeches about it, a special ‘task force’ assigned to the problem and 1 or more branches of the military on special assignment to work on the problem. But here? It’s old news by now, and pp have habituated to it.

  5. Very interesting blog post! It’s a sad situation because most of these kids are recruited or forced into the gangs at a very young age. Once they’ve entered the gangs, it’s almost impossible to get out.

    I doubt the gang members simply killed Poveda because he made them “look bad”. I actually think La Vida Loca depicts them in a fairly positive light. Nevertheless, from what I surmise, the gang does not want its private activities displayed to the public. I’ve heard that basically all the gang members depicted in the film were murdered soon after the film was released. The murders were likely ordered by higher ups in the gang. The same thing supposedly happened to a lot of the gang members who appear in Hijos de la Guerra as well.

    Just a quick clarification: the panaderia project as depicted in La Vida Loca was not initiated by the filmmaker, Christian Poveda. It was started by Homies Unidos, a transnational non-profit organization that attempts to rehabilitate gang members by providing them with gainful employment. They were founded in Los Angeles and continue to have a large presence there, but have since expanded to San Salvador.

    • LogPuck, thank you for clarifying who started the bakery project – I had heard of Homies Unidos, and did not realize they were the ones behind this. It would make sense that the gang members depicted in the film and Poveda would get knocked off for publicly displaying private gang experiences. Many of the gang members in that film seemed to be really “out” about their gang membership and wanting to share it with the world, like a few with tattoos on their faces.

      The gang situation in El Salvador is so incredibly awful and shocking. It is a complete epidemic, and we could use some serious help from large and powerful countries like the U.S. and European allies. To me it’s like a type of war, and just as serious as the narco and cartel activity we are seeing in Mexico, but because it’s all taking place in such a small country (and perhaps from the outsiders perspective in a country of not to much significance), no one does anything about it. I personally think that the gang problems wont get cleaned up around here until they bring actual troops and specialized police and military forces from OUTside of El Salvador to stamp out the gangs – they are too powerful for either the E.S. national or military police to handle here.

  6. Hi, nice blog you have, I am a Salvadoran living in the US, I am currently seeking asylum in the US, by any chance do you have any blog entry related about non-gang members sent back and targeted by gangs?. I would really appreciate if you do, this might help my case.

    Thank you.

    • Hi MASZ, so far no entries on non-gang members sent back to El Salvador that gangs target. I have heard in the news lately that more Salvadorans are seeking asylum when apprehended crossing the frontera. From what I’ve seen, including pp I know, many people (almost all poor people) have gangs in their neighborhoods, and live in fear of them. Could be 90% of the people crossing the border. Who do you let stay in the U.S. for asylum, then?

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