Los Angeles has long fed the global popular culture with TV and films, but now the city is in the spotlight for a new, more lethal export: Hispanic street-gang violence. Gangs certainly aren't new. But as the National Geographic Channel's upcoming documentary "Explorer: World's Most Dangerous Gang" illustrates, the allure of all things from the Golden State is giving this familiar story a particularly sinister new spin.
"There's an unintended phenomenon in the gang culture," says Al Valdez, a supervisor in the Orange County District Attorney's Gang Unit. "If you're [a gang member] from Los Angeles or Southern California and you end up in another part of the country or another part of the world, you're considered a big fish in a little pond because you're from L.A."
The show profiles Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a relatively new Los Angeles-based gang that has begun to spread around the world at what the experts call an alarming rate. Using gang-enforcement tactics developed in earlier decades - deportation, in particular - has actually contributed to what one officer calls the gang's "viral" growth. MS-13 began with a small group of young, illegal immigrants. It has grown by reaching out to new members, some as young as 8. "The culture is spreading to the youth very easily, especially with those [who] are impoverished," says Mr. Valdez, "and that's what makes them ... the most active and most dangerous in the country today."
As newly deported gang members find each other in their home countries, new "chapters" of the gang have popped up from Honduras to Spain. Central American countries in particular have been blindsided by this new American export - killings in the streets and entire neighborhoods under the control of an MS-13 "clique," as local sub-groups call themselves.
"There was no MS in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras before the deportation started," says Lisa Ling, host of the documentary. Deported gang members used to turn around and come back to the US. "But because deportation started to happen on such a widespread scale, these guys started wreaking L.A.-style havoc in their respective countries, as well as in different states across the US," she says.
MS cliques have been tracked to 33 US states and six foreign countries. Officials estimate that of the roughly 845,000 gang members in the US, some 10,000 belong to MS-13. While it may have begun as primarily a substitute "family" for young boys far from home, it has grown into a large crime syndicate, says Luis Li, former chief of the criminal branch of L.A.'s district attorney's office. "What's unusual is the degree of violence and the degree of sophistication that these kids engage in," he says. "Young kids used to get into fights over things like sneakers. Now it's over territory and money."
In the documentary, Ms. Ling interviews gang members here and abroad. She visits Central American prisons where both current MS-13 and former gang members are held. They brag about how powerful they are (one heavily tattooed member tells Ling that if he had wanted her dead, she would be), and Ling describes numerous killings.
While these are all chilling, the most striking story here is purely visual. These gang members are practically babies, nearly all recruited in their pre-teens. One former member, a 17-year-old named Brenda, walks and talks like a middle-aged Mafia moll on video clips of her police interviews. She says she turned to the police because her conscience got to her. We also learn during the course of the documentary that she was brutally murdered for becoming an informant, and we hear from her murderer, Oscar, another baby-faced youngster, who talks about how he wishes things hadn't turned out the way they did.
A former gang member discusses youth intervention programs that will help keep youngsters from entering MS-13 in the first place. Law enforcement officials say that social programs are the best way to wipe out gangs. These arguments are compelling, coming from the voices of hard experience. But the most persuasive arguments are the faces of these so-called senior gang members, who live and die before they can legally rent a car. These are a new generation of lost boys and girls. This documentary argues that we must find them before the gangs do.
Explorer: World's Most Dangerous Gang
National Geographic Channel
Sunday, Feb. 12, 8 p.m. EST