Mara Salvatrucha, an international gang, preys on Trump deportees in Latin America
Many deported in the Trump administration’s roundup face difficulty in readjusting, often becoming targets of criminal gangs. Click here to read the first part of our series exploring life in Central America following deportation. SAN SALVADOR — People who live in areas dominated by an international gang called Mara Salvatrucha in Central America are subject to a form of extreme violence that was exported from the United States to El Salvador when American immigration officials began deporting members of the gang in the 1990s.
Mara Salvatrucha has since become an international criminal organization, with its epicenter in the Central American Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. For emigrants who return to communities dominated by Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs after years abroad, either voluntarily or through deportation, going back is fraught with risk.
The gangs have corrupted neighborhoods where they operate, displacing inhabitants and forcing migration. They also terrorize returnees and have become a threat to the viability of the governments of the countries where they operate.
To learn more about this phenomenon, Chronicle reporter Olivia P. Tallet talked with Roberto Valencia, a reporter for the investigative section on violence, Sala Negra, of the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro.
Photo: Marie D. De Jesus, Houston Chronicle
Here is an edited transcript of the conversation: Tallet: What does it mean to live or return to live in a region dominated by these gangs?
Valencia: I doubt that there is any criminal structure in the world that conditions people’s daily lives as gangs do in El Salvador. And I would say that they are in more than half of the territory (of El Salvador). I don’t want to minimize the impact of cartels in Mexico, for example, but those are structures that are not so rooted in the community and therefore not affecting people’s lives so strongly as here.
For a person who has lived for years abroad, when he or she returns, they no longer know this country. The immigrant is seen first as a source they could exploit for money. We have found that the immigrant who returns, either deported or voluntarily or even to spend Christmas time, is subject to extortion. They are very vulnerable.
Tallet: Can you provide some examples of how gangs affect the daily life of people?
Valencia: For example, a few blocks from where we are having this interview there is a territory dominated by the 18 Revolutionaries gang. If you live in that community, you are marked as being of Las Palmas, which is the name of the community.
If, say, your brother lived and died in a nearby community called La Perrera, dominated by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) gang, you cannot go to his wake in the other community. You are marked, and your life is imprisoned in that territoriality. You cannot go to the health unit that is on the other block if it belongs to the area of another gang. You cannot cross a street, or send your child to a school in another area, even if you have nothing to do organically with the gangs.
If you live in a community where there is a strong presence of gangs, it’s almost like you have the forehead tattooed with the logo of the gang that dominates your neighborhood. To those of us who live here, life is conditioned to these levels. But even from the tourist point of view, if you are going to climb a volcano such as Izalco, which is very beautiful, you have to go with police officers armed to the teeth.
Tallet: How are these gangs organized?
Valencia: The two main ones are the Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13), which is the largest and predominant, and Barrio 18 is a strong enemy which split a decade ago into 18 Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and 18 Sureños (Southerners).
Internally, each gang is a world. Mara Salvatrucha, for example, works with clicas (cliques). The term clica is an administrative unit within gangs. It’s very linked to the territory. There are some with more members than others, but that unit is fundamental in its operation. For a few years now, these clicas have been forming what they call programas (programs). These are associations that grow as they expand either into nearby neighborhoods or by seeding new geographic areas.
For example, the el Programa de La Libertad has a dominant clica that is the Teclas Loco, so called because it’s located in a city within the metropolitan area called Santa Tecla. The cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha have the name of the place where they were founded followed by the word Locos (the crazies). Many cliques have American names like Hollywood Locos or Fulton Locos, referring to their original towns in Los Angeles. The Teclas Locos has expanded in the opposite direction to the US east coast.
The Mara Salvatrucha is a federation of more than 50 programs, according to some estimates.
Tallet: How are they financed?
Valencia: Many people make a living from the gangs’ criminal activity. Official figures talk about around 60,000 active members. But then they have their support web of family members and people who help them. This base is estimated as being between 400,000 and 500,000 people. We are talking about 9% of the (country’s) population.
Extortion is a main source of income, but they continue to evolve. (…) Some gangs are now taking the role of the agiotista (usurer), which is deeply rooted in the culture of El Salvador. Say, if you are poor and want to buy a box of tomatoes to resell in the market, you do not ask the bank to lend you $ 100 but to this kind of usurer. That is now becoming another space that gangs are taking.
Tallet: In addition to violence and crime, how else have gangs impacted families?
Valencia: We have been a quarter of a century with this problem. It’s a growing phenomenon because the cancer has spread with different levels of penetration in different areas. We have about two generations of children that have grown up locked up in their homes because their parents do not let them go out to protect them. They only go to school, the church, and some of them hopefully have a friend with whom they let them play inside the house. That’s a childhood problem in El Salvador. It’s something that we have internalized and assumed.
I was referring to parents who care for their children, because on the other hand, we have a problem of social decomposition, with many children whose parents have emigrated, children of single mothers or who live with grandparents or uncles. This isn’t a problem exclusive to the Salvadoran society, but here, when combined with the gangs’ phenomenon, migration, it produces an even more chaotic result.
Tallet: Several statistics put El Salvador as the most violent or among the world’s most violent countries in recent years, including 2016. Has there been any improvement?
Valencia: El Salvador had a rate of 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015. Last year, by government figures, it dropped to 82. But to put it in perspective, in the United States people are alarmed when the rate rose from 4.9 to 5.3 (in 2016). The Salvadoran proportions are astronomical; we are still the most violent country. This year, the rate was falling, but then from mid-September to now, it has been tripling with 26 and 27 murders a day, almost as high as we saw in (some months of) 2015. This increase coincides with the military deployment initiated on (September) 18, when the government started putting military armored tanks on the streets, supposedly to go after gangs.
Paradoxically, the tanks have been displayed in public parks, not in territories dominated by gangs. What are armored tanks doing next to (the statue of) The Divine Savior of the World? Nothing. It’s just propaganda to win votes [before the next legislative and municipal elections in 2018 and the presidential election in early 2019]. We now have a worse situation in El Salvador, and I would even say that it’s the worst situation the country has experienced in decades.
Tallet: Worse in what sense?
Valencia: Gangs now have an open war with the state. Part of the functions of the gangs has been to take care of their colony by protecting it from other gangs. That was already in the gangs’ DNA. But now the gangs have more enemies, and more powerful, like the government, which has openly declared war. Now we have, on the one hand, angrier gangs, and on the other, the state in a war using dubious methods. We are having cases of extrajudicial executions. Our problem isn’t that we have a madman who has become president. That would be serious but more easily correctable.
This is a society that right now applauds extrajudicial executions and even tolerates collateral damage with the death of people who have nothing to do with gangs. (…) And we have things like the president of the Legislative Assembly (Guillermo Gallegos) who applauds the release of police officers as heroes in a case where the judge admitted himself that they were involved in an extrajudicial execution.
Tallet: How do you see this complex problem moving into the future?
Valencia: The word repressive already falls short for this society. In the United States, scandals arise, and rightly so, when the police kill an individual. Here in El Salvador, the figures recognized by the police say that what they call confrontations have been leaving around 500 or 600 people dead in the last three years. (…) And the same police officers take pictures of the bodies and put them on social media (with phrases like), “One less rat.”
This state of affairs is now part of the folklore. I think that even if things started to be done appropriately now, we are so broken that it would always be a couple of generations before [had a situation in which] you do not have your day to day coerced. And I say it with deep pain, because it is about the future of my children.
Olivia Tallet, a Houston Chronicle reporter, and Marie D. De Jesus, a Chronicle photographer, traveled to Latin America and produced this report as 2017 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Click here to read stories and view photos from their fellowship. *** SUBSCRIBE:
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