Andy Romero remembers when a tattooed man showed up in his neighborhood with baggy pants, T-shirts with rock band logos, and sneakers like none he’d seen before.
“His clothes were totally different,” Mr. Romero recalls of that time, in the late 1980s. “He wore kerchiefs on his head. His hair was all shaved off.”
He had a nickname – Scorpion – and had showed up after arriving on a flight of deportees from Southern California. Thousands of other gang members would follow Scorpion back to Central America, deported by US immigration authorities.
American politicians now are debating how the United States should respond to the arrival in Texas of tens of thousands of adolescents and children, many of them fleeing violent gangs that have come to virtually control many parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. What that debate generally has lacked is a recognition that US immigration policies played a major role in creating the gangs that now are driving young people to flee to the United States.
Those who study the history of Central America’s gangs say there’s plenty of blame to go around and that strategies those countries adopted to deal with the returned gang members backfired. But there’s little debate that the gangs originated in the United States among a huge refugee population, then were exported back to Central America – often with little concern for the likely impact.
If one were to hunt for a beginning to the story of major gangs in Central America, it might involve the most mundane of settings: a convenience store parking lot on Westmoreland Avenue in Central Los Angeles where bored Salvadorans, offspring of refugees from this country’s civil war, gathered to pass the time.
“It started as what we refer to out here as a stoner gang: a bunch of kids hanging around and getting stoned all the time,” says Wes McBride, the executive director of the California Gang Investigators Association.
Their parents had fled intense and violent social unrest that had simmered in El Salvador for years and flared into full civil war in 1980, then grew worse as the United States stepped up assistance to the government in order to match an increasingly effective guerrilla army. The 12-year civil war would claim some 75,000 lives in a country that was the smallest in Central America.
The Salvadorans who’d fled found refuge in Central Los Angeles, where they often worked double shifts to make ends meet, and the youngsters were trapped in a neighborhood nearly devoid of parks and activities.
The stoner group assimilated into gangs that already existed, particularly the 18th Street gang, which had emerged among Mexicans in Los Angeles in the 1960s. By the early 1980s, Salvadoran youth broke off from 18th Street to form their own gang. They called it Mara Salvatrucha. “Mara” means gang, “salva” comes from the name of the country and “trucha,” which means “trout,” also signifies “vigilant.”
“It’s like ‘smart Salvadorans’; that’s a loose translation,” says Jose Miguel Cruz, a political scientist at Florida International University who’s interviewed more than 1,000 Salvadoran gang members as part of his research.
Heavy metal filled their ears, particularly the English group Judas Priest, and they adopted the devil horns – extending index and little fingers while tucking in the middle and ring fingers with the thumb – as a signature gesture.
Constant travel between the Los Angeles area – a major hub of emigre Salvadorans – and Central America meant that 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, got a foothold in El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s why Andy Romero saw a deported gang member and eventually joined the Mara Salvatrucha himself.
A watershed moment for gang development in El Salvador occurred in 1996. That was the year the US Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, radically altering how deportations were handled. Before the act, immigrants could be deported only if they committed aggravated felonies that carried jail sentences of five years or more.
The new law allowed US law enforcement officers to deport migrants for crimes such as shoplifting, minor drug possession, or even speeding. What followed was a surge in deportations of gang members back to El Salvador, rising into the thousands annually for the rest of the 1990s.
The move rid Southern California of part of its gang problem. But it overwhelmed El Salvador, where the civil war had been settled only in 1992 and institutions of government were just beginning to be established, including a new police force to be cobbled together from equal numbers of former police officers, former guerrillas and a third group unconnected to the other two.
Many deported gang members, who’d arrived in the United States as young children, were unfamiliar with their country of origin. They barely spoke Spanish, and with gang tattoos on their arms, faces and necks, they found few job opportunities. They sought out other gang members.
“The culture of Los Angeles gangs fell on fertile soil here,” says Edgardo Amaya, a lawyer who writes a blog on security issues.
If the gangs were supercharged by the influx of deported US members, some of them hardened criminals, a second watershed began in 2003, when Salvadoran leaders outlawed gang activity and swept thousands of members into prisons. The sweep had the unintended consequence of turning jails into hubs of gang coordination.
To understand what happened in the prison cellblocks, it’s useful to look first at gang hierarchies that are so loose one scholar calls them “democratic anarchies.”
Neighborhood gang chapters in Central America are called cliques. They comprise several levels, ranging from “soldiers” or “lookouts” up to “missionaries” and higher up to “shot callers,” who run the cliques, which usually number 20 to 60 members.
Early last month, the Salvadoran government pegged the number of MS-13 cliques at 1,387 and those of 18th Street at 637. Meetings at the clique level are open discussions.
“Decisions are made in a collective way,” says Romero, who observed the deported gang member decades ago, eventually jumping into the Mara Salvatrucha after losing his best friend to inter-gang violence. “It’s like an assembly, see. ‘Those who are in favor raise their hand.’ ”
Before the 2003 crackdown, and a subsequent crackdown a year later, many clique leaders didn’t know one another. With the crackdown, they met in prison and organized criminal activities.
“The authorities wanted to avoid greater violence in the prisons, so some of the prisons were set aside essentially for gang members,” says Sonja Wolf, a German academic who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the crackdowns and their impact on gangs.
“The most capable, brightest gang leaders met each other in jail, and that’s when the jailed leaders started exercising control over the streets,” says Wim Savenije, a Dutch academic expert on Salvadoran gangs.
Extortion had grown rampant by 2006, and the gangs began to support the family members of jailed gangsters, even entire neighborhoods, making it harder to distinguish who belonged openly to the gangs and who simply collaborated.
“If a gang member is jailed, he may ask his brother to collect the extortion payments. Or his mother. Are they gang members?” Mr. Savenije asks.
By 2011, El Salvador’s National Civilian Police estimated that the nation had 28,130 gang members,some 10,400 of whom were in prison. But the broader network of collaborators and family members is much larger.
Earlier this year, the Justice Ministry estimated that 600,000 Salvadorans – out of a population of 6.3 million – had some role in the gangs or received some benefit, says Mr. Amaya, the lawyer.
Other aspects of organized crime?
In 2012, the Obama administration declared Mara Salvatrucha an “international criminal organization” and claimed the group’s leaders were ordering crimes across international boundaries.
Facts bear out that MS-13 members carry military-grade weapons and use brutal tactics, even hacking apart rivals from the hated 18th Street gang with machetes and forcibly recruiting adolescents into their ranks.
Such violence is one factor in an unprecedented northward surge of unaccompanied children from Central America toward Texas. Since Oct. 1, more than 57,000 youths have crossed the border into Texas by themselves.
But little evidence has emerged that the Mara Salvatrucha has taken up other aspects of organized crime, such as turning into a major narcotics-trafficking ring.
Earlier this year, two gang members were caught returning with cocaine from Ecuador, in the Andean region, which is the source of the world’s cocaine. But never has MS-13 been known to coordinate and smuggle a large drug shipment, like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which operates hand in hand with transnational crime groups.
“Gang members have been caught with between 7 and 10 kilos of cocaine, but no more,” Amaya says.
What also is true is that MS-13 has a growing cadre of professionals offering services, including accountants, lawyers, and small businesses, even paying for the university education of some to ensure their service.
“They say, ‘We’re going to pay for your legal education, but you have to defend us once you graduate,’ ” says Eduardo Amaya, the coordinator of a Roman Catholic program that seeks to reinsert gang members into civilian life in the crime-ridden Mejicanos district of San Salvador.
Mr. Amaya, who’s unrelated to the lawyer with the same surname, says the gangs had evolved toward greater violence. Wannabe leaders of autonomous cliques sometimes display brutality to seek respect and rise to leadership roles.
“There are some young people who want to be seen as strong, and they’ll do anything, even kill. It was less intense before,” Amaya says.
One of the features in the gangs that’s often overlooked is the intense solidarity between members, offering a sense of identity even as hierarchies are diffuse.
The gang is brutal to those outside its ranks, but members are treated with respect, “from the youngest to the oldest, from the most handsome to the most ugly,” says Romero, now aged 40, who spent 14 years in Salvadoran prisons.
“The media are trying to make the gangs as the cause of the problem,” says Romero, who asked that his first name be given as the anagram Andy in this article to protect his safety. “The reality is that it is a government that fails to carry out its functions.”
Still, gang violence and control in the northern part of Central America keep getting worse, and Mr. Cruz, of Florida International University, says no government in the region had reversed the trend.
“It’s worse now than it was one, two, three years ago, and maybe it’s going to get even worse,” he says.