Warrior faces: Youth gangs in El Salvador

Member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador
Member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador (Flickr/Markarinafotos)

Since the end of the bitter civil war in the Central American country of El Salvador, there has been a huge increase in youth gangs. 20,000 young people, some as young as 11 or 12, have joined one of the country’s two main gangs. The gangs have become increasingly violent because thousands of Salvadorian gang members are being deported from the United States. Some former gang members are now trying to help themselves and others to build new lives in El Salvador.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 7, 1998


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Warrior Faces”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Once you don’t have to put your warrior face on as a gang member and just like everybody else. The gang members are youth who never got to enjoy their youth.

For over a decade, it was impossible for young people in El Salvador to enjoy their youth. Throughout the 1980’s, the Central American country – like two of its neighbors: Nicaragua and Guatemala – was embroiled in an intense, dirty civil war, which pitted the right-wing oligarchy against the peasant majority who were demanding greater democracy, human rights and a more just society. 75,000 people – combatants and civilians – lost their lives during El Salvador’s decade-long war. Over a million Salvadorians fled abroad to escape the terror, mostly to neighboring Honduras. But thousands upon thousands went to the United States. They took their children along, but many of them were unable to fit in because of a different culture, different language, and parents who were struggling to keep their heads above water. Gangs became their refuge, their identity in a society which didn’t want to recognize or accept them.

My name is Luis Ernesto Romero. EB: When did you go to the United States? That was 1980. The war started getting bad in El Salvador. I was a student. I was in high school, and both sides tried to get people to go fight in the war. My family on this side, because I’m the only male in the family, they decide to send me to the United States to be in a safer place. And that’s why I traveled to the United States.

Weasel (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is José William Nelson. I’m known as Weasel. I left in 1975, ’76. I was approximately 4 or 5 years old when I arrived in the States. EB: Why did your family go to the United States? I presume looking for a better life for us, for their kids. EB: When did you get involved in a gang in the United States? Maybe 12 years old. I was like in a little gang, but in a real hard core gang about 14, 15 years old. EB: What was the name of the gang? It was Westside Crazies. They’re like on the west part of Central LA. EB: Why did you join a gang? That’s a funny question because it was just like the thing to do. The guys I was hanging out with, they were all getting into this kind. They were all my buddies. I just go with the flow. I just follow them into it. / In January 1982, that’s when I get there, and I started experiencing the difference of the cultures. I had to learn how to speak English to live in that place because I felt the discrimination around the whole people. These and another kind of thing made me like changing my life in another way to be like violent. I don’t know. A couple of years later, I started having problems with my family. They don’t want to think like I think. So we start having problems, so I ran away from the house, and the only friends that I found was the gang. And right there, you see that I found really good friends. I kick in with so many guys and we kickin’. We going to play. We start going out, start knowing the country. I started knowing nice chicks, nice beautiful ladies, and that made me stay in that culture right there. And then on you see I start see myself as a gang member, that I was one of them. I start having respect. I start having what I want, be free, a guy with respect. They change my name for Crazy Belly. I’m no more Luis Ernesto other there. My name was Crazy Belly. That’s in Spanish ‘Panza Loca’. So that’s why you see I start getting more tough. Everything was like very nice for me in those days.

Panza Loca taking notes at Homies Unidos meeting
Panza Loca or Crazy Belly (© Eric Beauchemin)

The thing was they say if I want to join the gang, and I say I’m enjoying the gang. And they say, what you really want to enjoy the gang because you now it’s just like a fellowship. To get into the gang, you have to show us that you want to get into the gang. And I said, how is it going to be then? You want to fight with three guys and show us that you going to be proud of you. So we got a little bit drunk and started saying, well now it’s time. You get into the real gang. That’s how I start fighting with them. I fight with three guys, bigger than me. And they make me grow in a couple of minutes. But after that, they give me the hugs and they give me the appearance that I was in the family now. And that made me look more  tough, and I started doing the things of the gang. That’s how I get into the gang. I live in the United States for 10 years. I was in the gang for about 9. And then you see, I’ve been making a lot of troubles, stealing things, throwing a lot of parties, getting high on drugs. And started doing like bad life. / Did a lot of things, you know. In school, I had a few fights. Things escalated into other things, more violent things. EB: Like what? More gang fights, shoot-outs maybe, stuff like that, stuff that gang members do. A lot of my homies got killed. It’s kind of sad. You grow up with somebody, the next minute they’re gone, a lot of death, being involved in gangs. EB: This was just fighting between gang members. Other gangs. We had a lot of good times. We partied, hooked up with girls, went out with other girls, had sex with them. What all the gangs do, got to a rub, drank, used drugs, feel good, feel like a family.  EB: Did you go home in the evening to your own family? Yeah, sometimes I did. My mom always worried. She was always looking for me in the streets. I never listened to her, never listened to my parents. I was a wild kid, out there messing around in the streets, doing drugs, hanging out in the neighborhood, jumping new members in, stuff like that. I have more of an LA mentality than a Salvadorian mentality ‘cause since I was a kid, 4 or 5 years old. After a while, you start thinking that you were born in the United States, start hanging out with everybody out there, and acting like everybody. It just comes naturally. It’s how it is. EB: So what are you doing back in El Salvador? Here, I got deported from the U.S. August 20-something, a year ago, ’97. My extensive criminal history. I’ve been in trouble a few times with the law. I’ve been prosecuted by the state of California. I’ve done a lot of prison time. I guess they were tired of having a guy like me walk the streets of Los Angeles. They want to get rid of me. Since I wasn’t born over there, I guess they have that right.

Miguel Cruz, professor at the University of Central America and
Miguel Cruz, professor at the University of Central America (© Eric Beauchemin)

Crazy Belly also returned to El Salvador, but of his own accord. He and Weasel joined the thousands of Salvadorians who’ve gone back or been sent back to their native country since the end of the decade-long civil war in 1992. When they return, many of the gang members spend a few months drifting before joining the youth gangs that first emerged in El Salvador over three decades ago, says Miguel Cruz, a researcher at the UCA, the Central American University in San Salvador.

The process of gangs here in El Salvador is a long process. It didn’t begin with the end of the war as a lot of people will think. But it began maybe in the 70’s and goes more higher in the 80’s. But in the 90’s is when we have very big increase of these gangs. It’s because a lot of Salvadorians who went to the United States began to return and to be sent back. With this, they bring all this culture of being gang members of the United States, and they introduced this kind of dynamic of the gangs here in which we have two big gangs: MS and 18, and this dynamic of a war between them.

El Salvador’s National Police estimates that there are about 20-thousand youth gang members, and the legions continue to grow. The increasing number of deportees from the United States is not helping matters, says the director of Save the Children USA, Candy Bannerman.

Returning Salvadorians that have been involved in gangs in the U.S. would come back home, basically as refugees in their own country, with no services. The only thing they had to hook into or plug into was the gang. So they would leave one form of violence and get involved in another form of violence. Many of them left prisons in the States, came back here and got involved in some problem and went into prison here. The end result of what we were looking at was the impact that that was having on children at risk. The over 250,000 or 300,000 working children in the streets that have always had their own informal gang structure as working children but were having to – in order to protect themselves – align themselves with one gang or another. That became quite organized and became kind of the runners for these organized gangs.

Gang members can be found both in cities and rural areas. The two main gangs, MS and 18, for instance, have divided up the capital, San Salvador. They’ve spray-painted walls with symbols to mark their territory and often demand a toll from people who want to enter the neighborhood. Rival gang members are easily recognized thanks to their tattoos, and they risk being beaten or even killed simply for entering rival territory. Despite the risks and dangers involved, says sociologist Miguel Cruz of the Central American University, gang life has a lot to offer young people with little or no parental supervision, with little or no prospects.

These members are young people from 11 and 12 years old to 25, 26, and they are people from the middle, low class and the low classes of El Salvador essentially. They become gang members because this is the only opportunity they have to live with support from other people. They don’t have other opportunities, so they see the gang as opportunity to have respect, to have solidarity, to have some support from the other people. This is a support that they hadn’t in their families or the communities. So they look for it in the gangs or other members, with people with the same age, people who will always protect them from other situations.

Santo Antonio Redonder, injured in gang-related violence
Santo Antonio Redonder, injured in gang-related violence (© Eric Beauchemin)

The same factors are drawing young people to gangs throughout El Salvador, including in small towns like Nejapa, north of San Salvador. 20-year-old Santo Antonio Redentor drifted into a gang when he was 15.

I didn’t have anything to do with my time, so I joined MS. It’s the most popular gang here. It was lots of fun: I’d get together with friends. They were members of the same gang, and we’d smoke hashish and drink. Sometimes we’d go out looking for trouble and rumble. I spent some time in jail and then decided to quit. That was 8 months ago but three days later, I got shot in the leg by some rival gang members. I spent 20 days in hospital. I can walk a bit now, and the doctor says when he takes everything out, my leg’s going to be better, but it’s still pretty messed up.

The gang members are the first to admit the heavy toll the violence is taking on El Salvador’s youth. They’ve seen too many friends and enemies die in gang violence. René Salvador began his gang life in Los Angeles, and a few years later he was deported. Back in San Salvador, he set up his own clique and started getting in trouble with other gang members.

And then they wanted to get rid of me. We had done so many things that the police too, they were looking for me. I got caught, but I would get out right away ‘cause they never caught me doing something serious. But the violence finally caught up with me. One day some gang members opened fire on me. One of their bullets hit me in the spinal chord. They took me to the hospital, and doctors told me I’d never walk again. I was transferred to a rehabilitation center. They gave me a wheel chair and told me I’d never walk again. It was there that I started thinking about how much I had wasted of my life, about the time I had spent in gangs, taking drugs, and all for nothing.

Gangs, believe Salvadorians, are responsible for keeping alive the culture of violence which began long before their country descended into civil conflict in the early 80s. Surveys show that Salvadorians consider violence and juvenile delinquency to be one of their country’s chief problems, but, says researcher Miguel Cruz, the government has done little to stop the gangrene from spreading.

The problem is that the authorities has respond just in a very tough way, thinking that repression is the best way of responding to the pandilleros because they think that the gangs are a problem that should be eradicated totally. They don’t pay attention to the conditions that promote or create the gangs, the conditions of inequality, the conditions of marginalization that is in the country. So they don’t see that. They just focus on the violence, and the only way to resolve this problem is to be hard and tough with them, and this means get all and put them in centers of reeducation, they say, but in reality these are centers where these young members of the gangs learn to be even more violent.

But in a society still permeated by violence, it is difficult to come up with alternatives, argues Magdaleno Rose-Ávila, who has worked with youth gangs in El Salvador for a number of years.

Society cannot replace the gangs now. There is no other structure to give youth what they get in a gang: the discipline, the home, the camaraderie, the friendship. Where you have youth who do not have a place in society, they tend to gravitate and find a way to make a living, and sometimes making a living – because there is no other option – becomes illegal or it becomes violent. What we’d like to replace is their appetite for violence with non-violence, And this is the biggest challenge in the world.

It was a challenge taken up in the mid-90s by Magdaleno Rose-Ávila and several non-governmental organizations, including Save the Children USA & Sweden. They carried out a study on youth gangs and tried to come up with solutions to end the cycle of violence. Since gang members were unlikely to trust outsiders, they decided to involve members from the two main gangs. Among them was Sigfredo Rivera, who is now the director of a group helping gang members, called Homies Unidos, or United Homies.

Sigfredo Rivera, general director of Homies Unidos
Sigfredo Rivera, general director of Homies Unidos (© Eric Beauchemin) 

Homies is Spanglish, Spanish and English at the same time. Homies came up from homeboy, your best friend, your brother ‘cause for many homeboys and homegirls. Homie you can use it for everybody. Homies Unidos is for all your best friends, working together for a better future.

We found out that most homies dream on the streets, what they want to do in future, that they want to be someone. They want to have a family. They want to have their own thing, their own job, be professional, be a doctor, be a lawyer, be whatever. That’s how we came up with the organization and say they need opportunities and that’s why we are right here, as to the society. We can give all these opportunities to the rest of the homies on the street.

In a country where opportunities are hard to come by, Homies Unidos are trying to raise funds by pressing badges or buttons and selling them to finance a wide range of activities. Prevention is one of their main priorities.

Like last year, I’ve been giving all this human right training to the police about how they have to treat gang members as a human being because we are just human beings. Even though we are full of tattoos. It’s not like because you have a tattoo that you are going to be committing a crime. So they have to respect and they have to treat you as a human being. If you are doing something wrong, they have to arrest you. But not like because you have a tattoo, they are going to pull you over and put you straight to the wall and search you. We have been working with different universities. We have been teaching more than 5000 young kids and youth about why they don’t have to get into the gang. Now they’ve got just like an enemy, one enemy now in the neighborhood. If he get into the gang, he going to have like thousands of enemies. They don’t even know him, but they are going to kill him whenever they see him because that’s part of their reason to be in a gang. It’s not easy to be a gang member. As soon as you are in a gang, they start saying like I can’t get out anymore. They are going to kill me if I get out. They start saying things like that. So they have to see what is going to happen in the future if they join a gang. They don’t need to join a gang to be whatever they want to be in life. So we have to explain all these kinds of things.

The talks are given by former gang members, like Weasel and Panza Loca. Homies Unidos helped turn their own lives around, so they can speak from personal experience.

I hear about H.U. and I started to get involved in homies because I was in the gangs. I see the violence in my country from the gangs. Something tell me inside that I need to help me and I need to help these people. So Homies Unidos helped me to get out from all these problems: drug addiction, alcohol addiction, to have more priority, to start to know myself better. Like Panza Loca, you can do a lot of things. You need to help or something like that. It’s been very nice to know Homies Unidos because I think they saved my life and now I recognize the good job they do to me and the good job I do too. I believe in the youngsters, that they can do it. If I do it, the youngsters can do it, and that’s what we try to project to these people, to get out of the violence like I did. It’s not so easy. / I guess I was lucky to run into these guys because they really made me feel like I belonged here. All those months that I lived here till I met them, I was like lost. I had an identity crisis. I didn’t know who I was. I hooked up with them. I went to a concert. I heard the rappers. I approached them. One of them had an LA hat. I asked him are you guys from LA? He said, yeah, we’re from LA. I said I’m from LA too, I told them. We started talking. They told me they had a little organization working with guys like me. I just started calling them, showing up to the office. I’m glad they’re here because if it wasn’t for them, I’d still be lost. I feel more at home with them because the things is that my gang was like my second family. Since I’m not in a gang no more, they’re as close to a gang as it comes. But instead of doing negative things, they’re doing positive things, and that’s what I’m about now, doing positive stuff, helping other gang members and trying to talk to them, trying to send a message out to them that it ain’t all what it’s cracked up to be. You really got to think about getting into a gang. You just hurt a lot of people and you lose a lot of loved ones. You’re better off just doing positive things, going the right way.

Raul Salvador injured in gang-related violence
René Salvador injured in gang-related violence (© Eric Beauchemin)

It took partial paralysis for René Salvador to find the right path. But he counts himself lucky: many of his homies have died along the way.

I got involved in Homies Unidos. They had the same vision as me. But I wanted something more. I was looking for a spiritual element. I wanted to reduce gang violence but I also wanted to help those who were lost. God got me out of my wheelchair and I decided to help young people, especially those living on the street. As you can see here, I’ve started up a small ministry.

René is an example to many in his neighborhood, and he has converted several former gang members. They now live together in his small ministry on the outskirts of San Salvador.

When I lost the use of my limbs, I realized something. You know, we have this motto: “I live and die for my barrio. All the gangs have the same motto: I live for my mother and die for my neighborhood. But now I wonder. I was ready to give my life for my neighborhood, for my homies, but who was willing to do that for me?

René and his tiny flock work the buses, selling Christian book markers to keep the ministry and themselves alive. Life is not easy for gang members, says Sigfredo Rivera of Homies Unidos, but it’s even harder for former members.

Over here in El Salvador, there are no opportunities, and you’re going to go in the street to get a job and they’re going to see your tattoo and they ain’t going to give you a job. You’re going to get frustrated. So, we have to be realistic. If they aren’t going to give you that job, so we’re going to do workshops and we’re going to start working, selling things and working this. Put these workshops as a mechanic, painting, working with the glasses and murals. Going to try to teach computers and English classes in the same time so we can have some money and start retaining the money and start supporting the homies, so they can survive.

But many of the homies – including the 20% who are women – want much more than to simply survive. They want to start a completely new chapter in their lives, says Magdaleno Rivera.

Over here in El Salvador, there are no opportunities, and you’re going to go in the street to get a job and they’re going to see your tattoo and they ain’t going to give you a job. You’re going to get frustrated. So, we have to be realistic. If they aren’t going to give you that job, so we’re going to do workshops and we’re going to start working, selling things and working this. Put these workshops as a mechanic, painting, working with the glasses and murals. Going to try to teach computers and English classes in the same time so we can have some money and start retaining the money and start supporting the homies, so they can survive.

Universidad centroamericana José Simeón Cañas
Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (© Eric Beauchemin)

So far, examples like this one have been few and far between. But sociologist Miguel Cruz of the Central American University in San Salvador is convinced that within the youth gangs, there is enormous potential which is simply being ignored by the authorities and the rest of society.

The gang has important positive things and one of these is that the young people give solidarity to the others. They offer support to other young people, and this is important because this support is very special. It is very important in this period of the age. So we find that it’s important to recognize that you can use the solidarity of the gang to help these young people. Another thing we find is that when you eradicate the drugs and the violence, the gang could be positive for them and even for the community because it becomes an organization of the community that could help the community to promote some development into the community.

Sigfredo Rivera is confident that his organization will help change the attitudes of the authorities, the media and the rest of society towards youth gangs.

They see Homies Unidos as a new example to live. That’s the fact that they never knew about a gang member. Like, you can be somebody. You can work in this. You can come up. You can grow up. And we started right here with nothing, just the heart to do it. Maybe someday, we can stop the violence. If we get together, we can change the world, but we must have to be together.

Homies Unidos is spreading its message in the United States, as well as closer to home, in Central America, where youth gangs are appearing too. The causes are much the same as in El Salvador: war, massive poverty and a fundamental disregard for human rights, particularly those of children. The adult world has failed to provide all too many young people with the recognition, acceptance and protection they need. Gangs offer all that and more, but the price is high, both for the gang members and society as a whole. Now, former gang members like Weasel, are saying that the time has come to take off their warrior faces and for society to give them a real chance.

Thanks to these guys, my future looks bright. They’re there for me as emotional support. It’s a funny thing that a person that’s been through the same thing that you’ve been through and they’re doing positive things now. They see the good in you, and they help you bring it out. I’m not as young as I used to be, and I’m not as wild no more. But I’m much smarter, wiser I guess. I just want to keep on learning, filling out the data banks with positive things, something that is going to get me somewhere in life. I don’t want to be no bum in the street asking for me. I want to work for it. You can say I’m a hard worker. In prison they make you work for five cents a day, an hour. I’m a survivor man. That’s about it, you know.

“Warrior Faces” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.