La Mara Salvatrucha as a Social Movement

La Mara Salvatrucha: An international gang as a social movement

History and orgins:
La Mara Salvatrucha, also called MS-13, is an international gang that originated in Los Angeles in 1989, then spread to Central America, South America and even parts of Canada and Europe. The gang is easily recognizable—members usually cover their bodies from head to toe with Mara Salvatrucha related tattoos. MS-13 often requires violent initiation rights—forcing perspective members to withstand gang beatings or requiring an initiate to beat a target before being accepted. The origins of the name “Mara Salvatrucha” have been disputed, but it is widely accepted that “Mara” refers to marabunta ants, large aggressive ants commonly found in Central America. “Salvatrucha” is thought to be a form of Caliche, or Salvadoran slang, that combines “Salvadoran” and trucha, Caliche for alert (Nagle 2008:15-17).

MS-13 was originally comprised of refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. The war was fought between the right-wing conservative military government of El Salvador, which was backed by the U.S., and the Farbundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The FMLN sought profound structural change in the state. They demanded an end to El Salvador’s economic inequities and the repression of the urban and rural poor (Doyle, Duklis 2001:431).

About 70,000 people were killed in the war. The Salvadoran army commonly executed and tortured guerrilla fighters and FMLN supporters (DeCesare 1998). Eventually the army began to massacre teachers, labor activists and any supporters of FMLN. As a result, an “underground railroad” called the sanctuary movement was formed to bring political refugees to the U.S., in direct defiance of U.S. immigration law (DeCesare 1998).

Once in the U.S., the Salvadoran refugees settled in the poor urban areas of Los Angeles. There, they established networks to protect themselves from existing Mexican and African-American gangs (Reisman 2006:148).

Gang identity and the normalization of violence:
After witnessing the extreme violence of the Salvadoran Civil War, many of the youth joining the gang were already normalized to the violence Mara Salvatrucha would embody, making it second nature to many (Resiman 2006:148-150). In addition to the youth who witnessed the violence, many former guerrillas also ended up in Los Angeles and thrived on the violence the gang offered (Nagle 2008:10).

Not only did the civil war normalize violence for many of the gang members, but it also created an intense sense of devotion to one another (DeCesare 1998). One MS-13 member, Edgar Bolanos, explained how he became haunted by events that happened when he was only three years old.

“Edgar tells the same story I have heard from his mother Ana and his brother Hugo. He is haunted by a three-year-old's memory of soldiers torturing and killing his uncles and other villagers in a soccer field a few miles from this one near his brother's tomb. He remembers the bravery of his grandmother, who withstood the blows of soldiers for refusing to tell them where his father, a guerrilla fighter, was hiding. The fierce bond of loyalty and code of silence that saved their father is emulated by the surviving Bolanos sons (DeCesare 1998).”

Bolanos later moved to Los Angeles where he joined MS-13. After being deported back to El Salvador, he become a respected member of the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha, and at 19 was one of the oldest members of his local group (DeCesare 1998).

Deportation and forced exclusion:
After Mara Salvatrucha increased throughout the United States, eventually the U.S. began a campaign of deportation leading to an increased MS-13 presence in Central America, especially in El Salvador. Over a 12-year period the U.S. deported 50,000 immigrants with criminal records to Central America (Nagle 2008:11)

The Pentagon broadly labels organized crime, drug trafficking and gangs under the category of Anti-social combination, making gang activity the principal security threat in the hemisphere (Hume 743). Negative and sensationalized media accounts also contributed to gangs being considered immediate threats (Gunkel 37).

As a result of U.S. deportation, gang membership across Central America increased significantly, with estimates between 75,000 and 250,000 members mainly in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua (Hume 2007:480-481). Central American gangs, including MS-13, became extremely violent. They used drugs and robbery as their main source of income and frequently raped and murdered.

In Central America, the gang flourished because of a widening gap between the poor urban youth and the rest of society. In El Salvador, of the 800,000 adolescents between 13 and 18 (15 percent of the population of El Salvador), only 50 percent attend school and 29 percent work. If an adolescent did get a job at a maquila, the fasting growing sector in the Salvadoran economy, they would be paid the minimum wage of $4 a day, which can barely ensure subsistence (DeCesare 1998).

Once in Central America, gang members found that guns were widely available, and drug trafficking was highly lucrative, leading to an increase in crime and violence. This increase of violence and the high rates of unemployment combined with structural problems and El Salvador’s tradition of authoritarianism created a sense of fear among citizens who in turn demanded greater security and hard-line polices, resulting in Mano Dura being formed in El Salvador (Strocka 2006).

El Salvador introduced Mano Dura in 2003, and under the new law being part of a gang can carry a sentence of three to five years in prison. However, the definition of a gang membership was vague, defining a gang member as “those who belong to a group that meets regularly, claims territory for their group, use signs or symbols to identify themselves or mark their bodies with scars or tattoos” (Creedon 2003).

Mano Duro was eventually copied and introduced by other Central American countries (Hume). After the introduction of Mano Dura homicide rates in El Salvador, which had been decreasing since 1998, began to rise. In 2005, El Salvador had a murder rate of 55.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, making it the most violent country in the region. Eventually it became clear that Mano Dura and similar laws do not work, as violence increases and gangs continue to be prevalent in Central America (Hume 2007:741).

As a result, when Salvadoran President Antonio Saca took office in 2004, he created anti-gang units and paramilitary organizations to combat the threat of gang activity (Hume 2007:745).

The new anti-gang units, La Sombra Negra (or Black Shadow), in particular sought out gang members and killed them. In 2003, the dismembered corpses of young women were dumped around San Salvador. Authorities attributed it to gangs, but witnesses say it was a government sanctioned death squad. Another anti-gang unit, Mano Blanco, stated its goal was to murder anyone with gang-related tattoos. Some sources attribute the extrajudicial killing of 96 young people to these organizations (Hume 2007:745-746). This was all an attempt by the El Salvadoran government to dehumanize gangs in order to justify the reintroduction of coercive measures. These heavy-handed techniques were more popular among communities than using less extreme measures (Hume 2007:746).

As a result of the violence against gangs, youth gangs not only rose out of the normalization of violence due to prolonged internal struggles, but also the rise in injustice, inequality and social exclusion across the region made possible by globalization and neoliberalism. These neoliberal reforms have led to a constant decline of male participation in the employment structure, especially among the urban poor. This labor market exclusion increases the likelihood that male youths from poor urban areas will lose their masculine roles (Strocka 139).

Another factor that led to the rise in gangs, crime and violence in El Salvador is the unfulfilled rising expectations of a neoliberal globalizing market economy. No matter how hard they tried, gang members could not fulfill their desires for materialistic products, pushing them to make more money through crime (Strocka).

A social movement:
Through the normalization of violence and the shared sense of inequality and exclusion, a clear sense of identity is formed among MS-13 members and other Latin American gangs. Identity is a key factor in any new social movement, but so is a shared desire for social change, which is not prevalent among Salvatrucha members. This makes it difficult to classify MS-13 as a new social movement. It can be argued that Mara Salvatrucha can be classified as a social movement in several ways. The political and economic factors in Central America clearly led to the exclusion of the poor urban youth, who in turn had to find a means of survival outside of the traditional society. As a result, an ill-informed and panicking government introduced heavy-handed techniques that further ostracized the young, who in turn returned to gang activity. La Mara Salvatrucha represents a return to the FMLN response to an authoritarian control over the people, especially the poor, of El Salvador.

La Mara Salvatrucha is a social movement in that it is a response to state formed and sanctioned oppression and inequality. It does not overtly represent a social movement, but the restructuring of society is a byproduct of gang activity. If the governments do not reform, gang activity will continue, for the same reasons the Salvadoran Civil War started and why MS-13 was formed

The actions of the gangs and the government do nothing but harm the society. These governments will have to find a new way to deal with gangs, probably not through rehabilitation. That rehabilitation only continues the cycle of creating identity among gang members (Strocka). Youth’s sentenced to rehabilitation centers are “educated” by other violent and criminal gang members. Having a prison record is also a status symbol in MS-13, so these programs usually fail because the collective nature and societal roots of youth gangs are ignored.

Rehabilitation also misrepresents the complex reality of gangs and the possibility of positive functions, such as youth socialization, that can come out of it (Strocka 143). The “social capital approach” seems the most promising form of prevention, which uses participatory methodologies. Instead of labeling gang members as violent and criminal, this approach regards them as social actors with rights and positive capacities. It also promotes non-violent strategies for conflict resolution. Education and employment opportunities are given to the at-risk youth, which would ultimately mean that the authoritarian governments would have to restructure and change to reduce inequality and exclusion that leads to gangs.

External links:

Breve, Fedrico. 2007. The Maras: A Menace to Society. Military Review, July-August: 88-95

Creedon, Kelly. 2002. “El Salvador: War on Gangs.” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 37 no. 2:1-2.

DeCesare, Donna. 1998. “The Children of War.” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 32 no.1.

Doyle, Kate; Duklis, Peter. 2001. “The Long Twilight Struggle: Low-Intensity Warfare and the Salvadoran Military.” Journal of International Affairs, 431-459.

Gunkel, Colin. 2007. “Gangs Gone Wild: Low-Budget Gang Documentaries and the Aesthetics of Exploitation.” Velvet Light Trap, no. 60:37-46.

Hume, Mo. 2007. “Mano Dura: El Salvador responds to gangs.” Development in Practice vol. 17 no. 6:739-751.

Hume, Mo. 2007. “(Young) Men With Big Guns’: Reflexive Encounters with Violence and youth in El Salvador.” Bulletin of Latin American Research vol. 26 no. 4:480-496.

Nagle, Luz. 2008. “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?” Texas Hispanic Journal of Law & Policy vol. 14 no. 7: 7-27.

Reisman, Lainie. 2006. “Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Responding to Central American Youth Gang Violence.” SAIS Review vol. 26 no. 2:147-152.

Strocka, Cordula. 2006. “Youth Gangs in Latin America.” SAIS Review vol. 26 no. 2:133-146.

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