Culture spreads across the Americas, winning recruits who see L.A. as the promised land.
By S. Lynne Walker
HondurasMarlon Fuentes is a big man in his cell block at Honduras' largest prison. His face is tattooed. His talk is tough. He menaces with threatening stares. A gang member from Hollywood, Fuentes spends his time behind bars impressing Honduran "homies" with his exploits in California. He joined Los Angeles' infamous 18th Street gang when he was 12, was arrested for selling dope and brandishing a deadly weapon, then deported in 1995. Fuentes, 27, is the United States' violent export, a Honduran citizen shipped home under an immigration policy that Central American governments insist has helped spread the deadly gang culture throughout the Americas.
From Honduras to Hollywood and back to Honduras again, Fuentes moved in a distorted world where gang members identify themselves with tattoos and build networks via the Internet that bypass international borders. Two decades ago, gangs were rare in Central America. But in the mid-1990s, the United States stepped up deportations of criminals, many of them gang members from the 18th Street and rival Mara Salvatrucha 13.
Today, gangs are Central America's No. 1 crime problem. Thousands of violent young men experienced in handling sophisticated weapons and evading law enforcement have been sent back to countries they haven't seen since they were children. Some are dropouts. Many barely speak Spanish. They survive by building networks of teenagers who are abandoned, unemployed and devoid of hope.
For these new gang members, as well as the deported veterans, the goal is the same: to make their way back to the United States and reach the gang mecca of Los Angeles. L.A. gang members teach their new recruits what they know bestrobbing, stealing cars, selling drugs and, sometimes, killing. "We've done a great job of exporting the gang culture all over the world," said Al Valdez, supervising investigator of the Orange County District Attorney's Office gang unit. "Now the gang phenomenon is international." Today, more than 35,000 youths are members of gangs in Honduras, a country of 7 million people. El Salvador has approximately 30,000 gang members and Guatemala has 14,000.
In Mexico, where nearly 1,000 Central American gang members have been arrested in the past two years, gangs are taking hold in cities on the southern and northern borders, including Tijuana. The deportations haven't slowed the growth of gangs in the United States. Since 1992, the number of gangs has increased 625 percent, according to U.S. immigration officials. The National Youth Gang Center estimates the United States now has 750,000 gang members. California has roughly 365,000 members, 100,000 of them in Los Angeles County.
Every state in the nation now reports being plagued by gangs. "I sound like Paul Revere riding across the country and shouting the alarm, 'The gangs are coming. The gangs are coming,' " said Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. Gang members deported from the West Coast sometimes sneak back across the border and head for East Coast cities. Since they are not known by local police, they can extend the reach of their gangs into virgin territory.
"We're everywhere," boasted a Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS 13, gang member in Los Angeles. "Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, L.A., Washington, New York, Denver. There's a few in Missouri. There's homies in Canada, too. Wherever we go, we recruit more people. There's no way they can stop us. We're going to keep on multiplying." Gang experts said U.S. immigration officials failed to anticipate the effect of deportations on other countries.
"The world is too global to export a problem and not expect it to come back," said David Brotherton, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has authored two books on gangs. "In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, there's a whole new inner city youth subculture that originated in the First World," he said. "We've created this insoluble problem and these countries can't respond. There's no social work infrastructure. There's no rehabilitation. There's no money. They have enough trouble just providing basics for their own people."
For Central America's countries, the problem is certain to grow early next year when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, launches a nationwide gang-enforcement program. "We're trying to come up with ideas and different strategies" to combat gangs whose violent activities "pose a serious threat to national security," said Michael Keegan, the ICE spokesperson in Washington, D.C., on gang enforcement. Already, ICE agents are patrolling U.S. cities and rounding up foreign-born gang members.
In Charlotte, N.C., more than 100 gang members were arrested during an ICE operation last year. In San Diego, ICE agents arrested 45 gang members during a five-week operation in October and November. In Los Angeles, where more than half the homicides are gang-related, ICE set up an international gang crimes unit three months ago and began exchanging intelligence with the police department. Bratton favors the new initiative. "I think deportation works," he said. With more gang members being sent home, Central American countries are desperately searching for their own strategies to combat gang violence.
The Honduran congress last year unanimously passed one of the toughest anti-gang laws in the hemisphere. El Salvador followed suit with its own version of what has become known as the Mano Dura, or "firm hand" law, which allows police to detain any young man with a gang tattoo. Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas moved in that direction in May, approving five-year prison sentences for simply belonging to a gang. The crackdown has raised international concerns that gang members are being hunted down and killed by police.
Even so, governments throughout the Americas are pushing ahead to forge a united front against the 18th Street and MS 13 gangs. Mexico City's former police chief spent a week in Honduras earlier this year studying gang-fighting methods. El Salvador's consular representatives in Los Angeles recently asked L.A. police officials for a briefing on their anti-gang strategy.
In the South Bay, gang investigators from Torrance, Redondo Beach and Inglewood met earlier this month for a two-day workshop that drew law enforcement officials from across the nation. The focus was on the MS 13 because the gang is "up and coming," said an Inglewood detective who asked not to be identified. "We'd better know who we're dealing with. If we don't, we're going to get saturated." Gang violence touched Torrance in May, when a suspected gang member was shot at Sur La Brea Park.
The Torrance Police Department was so concerned about the potential for violence during a hearing on the case earlier this month that 10 officers were sent to the courthouse. Torrance Detective Henry Flores said as law enforcement cracks down, "gangs are migrating and continuing their criminal enterprise." Every time gangs are uprooted, they surface in another neighborhood, another city, another country. They move with the assurance that no matter where they go, fellow gang members will feed them, house them, orient them and possibly provide them with weapons.
As the gang culture spreads, people in the Americas find themselves linked in a new and uncomfortable way. Residents are frightened to walk their neighborhood streets at night, police aren't adequately staffed or trained, parents are grief-stricken by the senseless deaths of their children.
From Honduras to Hollywood the story is the same. Residents watch with fear, frustration and helplessness as gangs take their neighborhoodsand their childrenaway. Melrose Hill is an idyllic Hollywood neighborhood of bungalows and vintage streetlamps, a showpiece listed for historic preservation. Last year, Los Angeles Magazine called the 42-home neighborhood one of the 10 best in the city. But at night, when residents of this tight-knit community lock their doors, they hear gunfire in the distance.
The MS 13 has encircled their neighborhood, making it an island of middle-class American life in the center of random and relentless violence. Hollywood is home to the largest MS 13 clique in Los Angeles. Gang members drift in "fresh from Central America," police say, and stand outside the Hollywood Video near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue until a homie steps out of the shadows to help them. "There's another world around us," said a lifelong Melrose Hill resident who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against his family.
"You see what's going on in the surrounding streets, you see young Latino men posturing and you think, 'Oh, God.' And you drive on. You wonder if the prudent thing wouldn't be to flee like other white people." A woman was shot in the head just a mile from Melrose Hill last year as she drove her husband and three children home after a Thanksgiving dinner.
Police suspect an MS 13 gang member from El Salvador fired the fatal bullet. At Melrose Hill Neighborhood Organization meetings, the gang problem is always at the top of the agenda, said Brian Brady, 48, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years with his wife and three children. "Everybody knows they're not going away," Brady said. "If there's an answer to this problem, then it's pushing them to other places because there are always going to be gangs."
A few miles away, Hollywood Boulevard has become the 18th Street gang's turf. The gang members hawk their drugs and sometimes shoot at rivals who slip in among the hundreds of thousands of tourists passing through every year. Frank Flores, 30, who works the gang detail in the LAPD's Hollywood precinct, has seen scores of immigrant children join gangs, get arrested and then get sent back to countries they barely remember. "We have seen some who've come full circlehere in L.A., deported, then back again," he said. "It's frustrating."
Jorge Potter is one of those who has come full circle. After being deported in 1989, the Hollywood gangbanger introduced the 18th Street gang to his neighborhood in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. Potter's role as an 18th Street leader eventually made him a target of Honduran police, so he returned to the United States illegally and made his way back to Hollywood. There, Potter said he had a religious conversionthe only way a gang member can leave his gang without being killedand started working in a Hollywood discount store.
In June, however, he was deported to Honduras again. He was detained by immigration agents in Las Vegas, where police had twice arrested him on misdemeanor charges. Potter said he was going to divide his time between working at a clothing factory and witnessing to youths in San Pedro Sulawhich now has one of the highest murder rates in Latin Americaabout the evil of gangs. But when he stepped off a chartered plane guarded by U.S. marshals, he was wearing a muscle shirt that showed off his elaborate tattoos, including the number 18 tattooed on his right arm. His voice carried a touch of pride as he talked about his gang. "The 18th Street is No. 1 in Los Angeles," said Potter, now 36. "It's the biggest in the world." Latino kids living near downtown Los Angeles formed the 18th Street in the late 1960s to defend themselves against established gangs.
The MS 13 sprang up in the late 1980s, created by the children of Salvadoran immigrants who fled to California during a bloody civil war. The MS 13, which now operates in 30 states, is "a little more violent and a little more calloused" as well as more experienced in protecting members than its 18th Street rivals, said Joseph Esposito, one of the top deputies in the hard-core gang division for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office. "If their members commit serious crimes, they are organized enough to move them to Minneapolis or Seattle or another city and start an enclave there," he said.
Jessica is a member of the MS 13, born in Guatemala and trained in the streets of Los Angeles. She has been the target of gunfire more times than she can remember. She is also a full-time office worker and the mother of an 8-year-old daughter. She came to Los Angeles when she was 5 years old, brought by her mother, who saw Los Angeles as a city of endless opportunities. While her mother struggled to support the family, young Jessica discovered a different Los Angeles. She started touching up her eyes with heavy black liner and slipping into gangster clothing after she left home in the morning. Eventually, she stopped going to school and started hanging out. She took a 15-second beating during an initiation ritual when she was 14 and became an official member of the Mara Salvatrucha 13.
Now 26, Jessica has survived longer than most of her homies. But her safety zone has been reduced to a series of city blocks whose boundaries are set by rival gang members. "On every block, on every corner, a homie has gotten shot and killed," said Jessica, who asked that her last name not be published for fear of losing her job. After 12 years as a gang member, she can't decide which direction her life should take. "Being bad is so easy and being good is so hard," Jessica said. "I get bored by the routine. For me, it's the street, the adventure, the thrill of danger.
People tell me that to change I have to get away. But I like being here. "Anyway, I'd probably go to another state and find the 'hood again. You can always find someone from the MS because it's so big." Jessica had a chance to start over after she posted her profile on the Yahoo personals page and met a Camp Pendleton Marine.
The young Texan took an instant liking to her, even flying her to Houston to meet his parents and paying for her trip to a Marine gala in Las Vegas. But Jessica didn't love him, so she broke off the romance. "I had a choice of a good man, benefits for life, or a guy from the street with no papers," she said. She chose a 25-year-old gangbanger who goes by the name of "Puppet."
Like Jessica, Puppet is an immigrant. He was already a member of the MS 13 when he arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 13. Puppet was deported to El Salvador in June. Three weeks later, he called Jessica and told her he had killed a rival gang member. He's trying to get back to the United States, but Jessica is terrified that 18th Street rivals will kill him before he makes it across El Salvador's border. In September, he was in surgery for six hours after 18th Street members hacked at his head, ribs and back with machetes. Jessica paid for his surgery with money collected from L.A. gang members.
Now she's trying to scrape together Puppet's $3,000 passage back to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, MS 13 members in El Salvador are urging Puppet to be their leader. And local cops are watching him "The new law (in El Salvador) is locking up the guys who are getting deported. The cops think they're the leaders," Jessica said. "Some of them are. Like Puppet. He will be one of them." The Rev. Arnold Linares ticks off the gangs that held residents hostage in his Honduras neighborhood of Rivera Hernandez before the anti-gang law went into effect.
The MS 13. The 18th Street. And the Normandies, named for Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles. "All this came from the United States," Linares said, shaking his head. "One 18th Street member killed (rival gang members) with an AK-47 his gang sent him from the United States especially for the job." For five years, Linares, the 35-year-old pastor of the Place for Everyone Baptist Church, has tried to lead young men.
Charitable organizations gave him six computers. A church in Memphis, Tenn., bought uniforms, balls and trophies for the soccer league he started for gang members. But he gets no government support for his efforts and in June, government officials evicted his league from the community soccer field. Linares often confronts danger as he struggles to help gang members. When he stood at the gate of gang leader Mario Montalban's house, he found himself looking down the barrel of a homemade shotgun. Linares raised his big, worn Bible above his head and Montalban, trailed by his second in command, lowered the shotgun.
Montalban, 26, started his Barrio 11 gang when he was 16 years old after a failed attempt to migrate illegally to the United States. He was attacked by gang members when he crossed the Guatemalan border into Mexico, then sent home by Mexican authorities. Montalban said he was "one of the worst," making homemade shotguns and forcing the working people of Rivera Hernandez to pay "rent" before they could walk down his street. He was high on drugs from morning to night. And he murdered at least six people. He stabbed his last victim in the throat with a screwdriver. After Montalban accepted Linares' offer to join the soccer league, he disbanded his gang and converted to Christianity. But his decision to go straight didn't mean Montalban was given a job and welcomed back into society. As a criminal, Montalban made enough money to feed his two young daughters and elderly mother.
When Linares walks the streets of Rivera Hernandez, he worries about Montalban and the others he has pulled away from gangs. "We have so many kids in the streets doing nothing. If they can't find work to feed themselves, they do the easiest thingthey rob people," Linares said. "We are asking the government to give them a place for recreation, to give them work. This is not just a spiritual matter. It is question of jobs." In Southern California, which has had gangs for nearly 100 years, the solution is just as elusive.
"We live in a nation where we want instant results. Unfortunately, the programssuppression, intervention and preventiontake a little while to gestate," said Valdez, of the Orange County District Attorney's Office. Although gangs have now sprung up in every state in the nationthe MS 13 and the 18th Street have been reported as far away as HawaiiValdez said "there is a tendency for the very affluent communities of America to deny that gangs exist. It's always somebody else's problem."
Los Angeles County, which has almost 1,000 different gangs, has responded with more police, more crackdowns, more arrests under gang injunctions. In Redondo Beach and Wilmington, injunctions have resulted in a marked decrease in crime. Since the Wilmington injunction went into effect in March, at least 75 gang members have been arrested. But the injunctions, which allow police to arrest gang members simply for hanging out together in court-designated "safety zones," have drawn criticism from civil rights activists. "Injunctions are a way of outlawing normally legal behavior," said Los Angeles civil rights attorney Constance Rice. "You can't gather. You can't drink together. You can't talk together. You can't go to a restaurant together. It's a suppression method."
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo acknowledged that, "we are imposing on their civil liberties. That's the whole idea. We do that all the time in our society for safety reasons and the Supreme Court says that's OK. People in our communities deserve protection, too." But pushing gang members from one place to another is not the solution, said the Rev. Gregory Boyle, who works with gang members in East L.A. Nor are massive deportations the answer to the international gang problem, he said. "The police are passing them off to the INS. And what do folks do?
They get deported and they come back," said Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries to help gang members break their criminal ties. "The idea is to banish them, to demonize them. Tell me how that approach will keep a 15-year-old from doing it again." Lately, Boyle has been receiving phone calls from foreign-born gang members locked inside the immigration detention facility on Terminal Island, waiting to be flown to the nations where they were born.
Among the deportees waiting nervously in the facility in June was Oscar Zapata, who was to be sent home to Honduras. Zapata, 42, said he was out of the 18th Street gang, but a routine "stop and frisk" by L.A. police showed he was wanted by immigration authorities. Zapata joined the 18th Street gang in the early 1970s, shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles. His childhood in Honduras had prepared him for gang membership. At age 9, he was tortured by police and incarcerated with adult men in San Pedro Sula's prison. At 12, he was conscripted into the Honduran Army and taught to fight with an M-16 rifle.
When he was released by the army, he lived on the streets of Honduras until his mother took him to California. By the time Zapata got to Los Angeles, "I wasn't afraid of anything. I had lost my fear. I came here with a different mentality," he said. He was deported to San Pedro Sula two years ago after being arrested on drug charges, but he quickly returned to California. Zapata is appealing a judge's order to deport him this time because he's afraid he cannot survive the tactics of Honduran police.
Beads of sweat stood on Zapata's forehead as he remembered how the Honduran police kicked the body of a gang member and said, "This one is dead." "I am afraid of the police. Nobody can stop them," he said. "If they send you to prison in Honduras you are going directly to your death." Nearly 1,500 tattooed young men have been arrested since Honduran President Ricardo Maduro began his anti-gang campaign 16 months ago. Almost 200 of them died in two separate prison firesone in an 18th Street cell block and the other in an MS 13 cell blockin which the guards were either found negligent or directly responsible.
In the most recent fire, on May 17 in San Pedro Sula, 61 of the 107 gang members who died hadn't been convicted of a crime. Aida Rodriguez blames the Honduran government for the death of her 24-year-old son, Alan, who died in the inferno. A veteran of the MS 13, Alan was serving a 69-year sentence for double homicide. "If the government was going to have an anti-gang law, then they should have prepared prisons for them because they knew they were going to capture a lot," she sobbed. Ramon Custodio, who heads Honduras' National Commission for Human Rights, calls the incarceration of the gang members "a massive illegal detention" and vowed to ask the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional.
"Because you're tattooed or because you behave this way or the other, you can be captured and taken to prison," Custodio said. "The principle of innocence doesn't exist any more in this country." Christian Antunez hides from Honduran police in the single room he shares with his wife and 18-month-old daughter. He has tattoos on his biceps, forearms, back and stomach. Above his right eyebrow are the faint letters NLS, or Normandie Street Locos, for the MS 13 clique he identified with in Los Angeles. Antunez has never been to the United States. He was introduced to gang life by his cousin, who grew up in L.A., joined the 18th Street and then became a leader.
When the cousin was deported to Honduras, he brought back his expertise in gang warfare. By his own admission, Antunez was a violent gang member. He was given a distinctive nickname: Mr. Crime. He murdered one man and said he participated in the deaths of others. "Sometimes you have to kill or be killed," he said. Antunez, 25, says he is out of gang life now, but until he burns off all his tattoos, he is in constant danger of being arrested under Honduras' anti-gang law. The only time he ventures out of his house is for his monthly trip to a clinic in San Pedro Sula called Adios Tatuaje, or "Goodbye Tattoo." "It's a human hunt in this country," Antunez said. "You know what they are doing with the anti-gang law? They are putting all the young people in jail. There is no rehabilitation. You know what rehabilitation is for the government? To kill them like dogs in the street."
Suyapa Bonilla, who runs Adios Tatuaje out of a room in her house, said many of her patients "came here crying because companies would not give them a job." Some had tried to gouge out their tattoos with a knife or the tip of a hot machete. The demand for tattoo removal is so great that Adios Tatuaje has clinics in El Salvador and Guatemala and is about to open one in Nicaragua.
Even men and women who've never been gang members feel compelled to remove their tattoos. Juan Carlos Brito, 24, pulled up the sleeve of his T-shirt to show the heart on his bicep that he'd gotten in the Merchant Marine. "I am sorry I have one," he said as he waited at Bonilla's clinic for his treatment to begin. "I have never been a gang member. But this law affects me, too."
Oscar Alvarez, the country's minister of security, shrugs off accusations by human rights activists that the gang crackdown is turning Honduras into a police state as it was in the 1980s when hundreds of suspected leftists were tortured and murdered by a secret military unit. Law and order, not human rights concerns, are on the public's mind, he said. And Alvarez, who is rumored to be considering a presidential bid, is at the vanguard of the politically popular effort. "The public was crying out, 'I want security,' " he said, "because this affects the people who are the least protected in the country."
Demographics underscore the seriousness of the problem, he said. In Honduras, 51 percent of the population is younger than 18. In El Salvador, more than half the population is under the age of 24. "We have to stop more youngsters from becoming gang members," said Alvarez. "If we don't do something about it, we are predicting a very grave future for our country."
At Honduras' Tamara National Penitentiary outside the capital of Tegucigalpa, an 18th Street gang member named "Lucifer" mocks officials who believe they can stem gang violence. "If you can't control gangs in the United States, how are they going to end it in this (expletive) country?" cackled the 22-year-old convicted murderer as gangsta rap throbbed and inmates pumped iron in the searing Honduran sun.
Paul Antonio Zelaya is an example of the problems faced by both countries. Born in Honduras, his mother took him to Los Angeles when he was 3. At age 11 he joined the 18th Street gang. On his bulging right bicep, Zelaya, who also goes by the name Ricky Alexander, shows off the tattoo bearing his California prison number. He was deported to Honduras in 2003 after being paroled from Imperial County's Centinela State Prison. Three months later, he was arrested by Honduran police for robbery. Zelaya and his fellow Los Angeles inmates talk about going back to the United States, to the city they consider home.
So does a prisoner who calls himself Looney, even though he has never set foot in the United States. Looney is one of 18 children in his dirt-poor family. Four of his brothers are also in gangstwo in the MS 13 and two in the 18th Street. In 1995, family members who had already settled in Los Angeles sent him money to make the trip. But he got arrested for stealing and has been in prison off and on ever since. He imagines Los Angeles as "a beautiful city" where homies can find "a blessed peace," because "there is not a lot of violence against them." "They have cars, TVs, food on the table. Everything. Everything. Everything," he said. "Los Angeles is a paradise.