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Broken Borders: The US Roots of Central American Gangs

By Jorja Leap


SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR: A gang graffiti (“Devil's horns”) painted on the wall in the Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador. 

While the country turns its attention to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the crisis of undocumented Central American children fleeing gang violence in their home countries has continued to grow. What many Americans don’t understand is that these gangs—18th Street, Florencia-13, and MS-13, to name a few—first got their start here in the United States. Fueled by a cycle of arrest, deportation, recruitment, and reentry, gangs who were once local to the streets of East Los Angeles have now gone international. In the following excerpt adapted from Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption, sociologist Jorja Leap explores the real origins of these Central American gangs, and reveals in the process how our current border crisis is actually the result of a history of broken immigration policies.

I want to understand the truth about gang members and the reality of their lives. I do not devise formal questionnaires. Instead, I depend on people in the streets. This includes law enforcement officers, priests, politicians, poets, and gang members—active and former. This is why, two days after meeting with the sheriff, I am in South LA talking to Kenny Green. Kenny is a former gang member who rarely speaks of his street associations. He is no longer active and works as an interventionist and case manager. I settle in for the long haul. Any discussion with a gang member or a former gang member is always a long-term commitment; whenever I sit down with Kenny, I budget a minimum of two hours. I will not leave his office until the sun has gone down. An account of any event even the smallest street altercation—becomes an occasion for a history lesson and a recitation of gang genealogy.

I ask Kenny to explain the gangs of Los Angeles to me as simply as possible. He thinks carefully, then says, “To understand gangs in LA you gotta remember it’s the blacks and the browns. And the neighborhoods are different, really different. You can ask anyone.”

Kenny’s words are crucial to understanding the gang family tree. They are also at a far remove from media sensibilities and conventional wisdom. That is because the popularly accepted face of Los Angeles gangs is invariably black. Most people believe there are two major gangs—the Crips and the Bloods—who are viewed as the Hatfields and McCoys of the street. Yet it is the ultimate irony that street gang “culture” has become so strongly identified with African American gangs like the Bloods, the Crips, and their offshoots, when the largest, most well-established gangs, with the longest history, are not black. The oldest branches of the Los Angeles gang family tree are actually composed of the Sureños (Spanish for “southerners”), or Hispanic gangs, which invariably account for over six hundred of the twelve hundred gangs in Los Angeles County. It’s old school to think that Hispanic gangs are exclusive to East Los Angeles. In truth, their geographic reach extends throughout Los Angeles, across the Midwest and the Sunbelt, and on to the East Coast of the United States. In addition to African American and Hispanic gangs are the lesser-known but equally criminal Asian-Pacific gangs, whose LA membership hovers at around twenty thousand.

While the Sureños trace their roots to the barrios of East Los Angeles, over the past decade a powerful trinity of gangs has dominated media coverage and seriously challenged law enforcement. Florencia-13, 18th Street, and MS-13 are the new kids on the block in the evolution of Hispanic gangs—and they bear little resemblance to their small, neighborhood forerunners who fought over control of a few blocks in the housing projects. The gang known simply as 18th Street is a fifteen-thousand-member violence collaborative composed of twenty independently operating neighborhoods located everywhere from the eastern San Gabriel Valley to the southeast pocket of Los Angeles County. Each gang faction—or set—typically has a membership of anywhere from fifty to one hundred, but their origins can be traced to the area of Los Angeles known as Pico-Union.

The establishment of 18th Street represented a shift in the gang endeavor from the more parochial, small gangs of East Los Angeles that included The Mob Crew (TMC), Cuatro Flats, Clarence Street Locos, Big Hazard, White Fence, and El Sereno. In 1959 members of the Clanton 14 neighborhood organized a new clique that offended their parent gang. Clanton 14 core members insisted that the new clique—Clanton 18—either obey the leadership or break off and start their own gang. In the end, Clanton eventually lost their territory and dominance to the “disobedient” former clique, now known as 18th Street. In the end 18th Street also learned an important lesson from the overcontrol of Clanton 14: discipline should be minimal. In addition, any and all new members should be accepted. Leaving the neighborhood is another matter, however, and 18th Street is unforgiving. “If anyone tries to leave,” Kenny tells me, “18th Street will really try to stop them. Other neighborhoods might think about lettin’ you go. Not 18th Street. If you try to leave, they’ll frame you for a crime or beat you up.” Gang dominance in Los Angeles is linked to geography: territory is power. As a result, the urban sprawl of Southern California is echoed in the territorial spread of successful gangs. While 18th Street may be depicted as the predominant Hispanic gang in terms of membership numbers, the largest Hispanic gang covering the most territory is actually one of 18th Street’s main rivals, Florencia-13. Their turf stretches from Central to South Los Angeles, and their businesses reach beyond state borders. Florencia tags with a little flower—an innocent icon for such a lethal entity. And they are as unforgiving as 18th Street. “The only way you can leave Florencia,” Kenny tells me, “is feet first. Stay away from them.”

I already know that the world of Florencia and 18th Street is a scary one. They are two neighborhoods I rarely have contact with during these first months of interviewing gang members. Instead, a few days after seeing Kenny Green, on a rainy night, I sit in a deputy sheriff’s patrol car driving through Florencia territory and listen to a radio call reporting a gang rape involving a fourteen-year-old female victim. When I hear the disembodied voice of the police dispatcher describing the crime, I know Florencia is different.

While I embrace alternative approaches to working with gangs, like prevention and intervention, on this night I did not want to be traveling alongside a gang worker; I wanted to be riding with a uniformed officer carrying multiple firearms. There were choices I had to make and this was one—Florencia was not a group I wanted to associate with, nor was 18th Street. “They are the most violent,” my husband Mark has warned me. “I don’t want you to go out seeing them on your own.” I had argued frequently with Mark that he was overreacting or buying in to the hysteria of his colleagues in law enforcement. “You are too rigid,” I’d argue. “You are too much a cop.” But that night, I agreed. It was one of the few times I would listen to him.

I feel differently about the third gang in this urban trinity—MS-13. Perhaps because I have grown close to a former gang member, Alex Sanchez, who has helped me to navigate the transnational gang panic. “I keep thinking about the police and the media and the FBI. They created us, they demonized us, but they don’t understand us,” Alex tells me. “I was MS-13 and yes, there were some dangerous characters there. But that is not the whole story. People have come to us because they want to belong somewhere, because people felt safe, because the system itself didn’t provide the structure that immigrants needed.”

The demonization of MS-13 stems from the public belief that it originated in Central America and oozed over the border like something out of a monster movie. The truth is that MS-13—Mara Salvatrucha—was established by Salvadoran immigrants in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Central Los Angeles to provide local residents with protection from other Hispanic gangs, most notably 18th Street. Despite its rather matter-of-fact beginnings, there is a mystique to MS-13. Part of this derives from the name—“Mara” is said to come from La Mara, a Salvadoran street gang, while “Salvatrucha” is shorthand for the guerilla fighters of El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, who many claim form the backbone of the MS-13 veteranos. The 13 indicates their affinity with the Mexican Mafia, a US prison gang also known as La Eme.

The gang is distinct from the predominantly Mexican gangs of Los Angeles: its membership is composed of Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans. But like other gangs, MS-13 is a confederation of loosely associated cliques or sets with some ten thousand members in Los Angeles and fifty thousand members nationwide— expanding as far north as Washington state and east to Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. While membership varies, MS-13 engages in typical criminal activities—dealing in guns, drugs, and contract killing. There are also reports of human trafficking along with prostitution. But any member of MS-13 will explain—as I have been told—that their ultimate goal is to become the most powerful gang in the world. And ironically, their goal has been aided and abetted by the US government. Many active members of MS-13 are undocumented or criminal offenders or both—rendering them ripe for deportation to their countries of birth. The deportations usually last long enough for individual MS 13 members to recruit new members and then return back to the States. As a result, the largest mechanism for Hispanic gangs spreading beyond borders is deportation—it’s government-sponsored gang recruitment. Left to their own devices, the gang members I know are about as organized as the Keystone Cops—territorial, petty, and far too focused on local violence to ever form an international crime syndicate. I witnessed this firsthand talking to a tagger who was arrested for vandalism in a small Los Angeles suburb and threatened with deportation.

“You don’t understand,” he told me. Although I was growing tired of hearing that I did not understand, I still listened closely. “If they send me back to El Salvador I will not be safe. I will be told to get new members or they will send someone to kill me. So I will get new members for the neighborhood. Then I will come back here. Then I will get caught again, probably. Then I will go back there. It will not end until I die. And I want it all to stop. I would rather be in prison here than go back there.”


LEAP-by_Anthony_Kaklamanos-FINALJorja Leap has been on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles Department of Social Welfare since 1992. A recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention, she has worked nationally and internationally in violent and postwar settings. Dr. Leap is currently the senior policy advisor on Gangs and Youth Violence for the Los Angeles County Sheriff.