I began my journey into the world of Latino youth gangs 12 years ago on the streets of Los Angeles after covering conflicts in Central America during the 1980's. Back then, there were no gangs in Central America, but the immigrants and refugees flooding into Los Angeles, fleeing civil war and human rights abuses in their native countries, landed in poor neighborhoods where gangs were a dominant feature of youths' daily lives.
In those years California was consistently spending more on prison construction than on education. Deportation of immigrant youth offenders became a popular solution to what was then perceived as a growing "immigrant" gang problem. But the dual policies of incarceration and deportation have not rid the United States of its homegrown youth gangs. Instead prison has become a rite of passage in poor communities here, while the gang culture of Los Angeles has spread throughout Central America.
When young immigrant offenders or gang members who grew up in the United States are deported, they are denied the minimal anchors of family and "home." Some are jailed upon arrival in the countries they left as children. Most are set adrift in the shantytowns of the Americas. Rejected and feared wherever they go, they seek others like themselves for comfort, protection and survival.
It is these young men whom I have followed on their journeys from one country to another, where the common ground they find is social alienation and the comfort and security the gangs provide them. I've noticed that mine is a lonely trail, too, for as I sit and talk with these gang members about their lives, and I observe them with one another and photograph them, rarely do I come across other journalists doing the same. Thus, their story is one rarely told and rarely, it would seem, noticed, at least in these less visible aspects of their life stories that I believe can be of value for us, as Americans, to understand.
There is nothing romantic about gangs or gang violence. Postwar Guatemala and El Salvador vie with one another for the highest per capita homicide rate in the American hemisphere. Annual per capita homicide rates surpass the average annual casualty rates during the wars of the 1980's, yet in less than 20 percent of the homicide cases is anyone found guilty of the murder. Investigative work by the Guatemalan police is rare. Police officials at crime scenes commonly attribute homicides to gang vendettas of two street gangs — Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street that originated in Los Angeles — though human rights activists with ties to the affected communities tell different stories. They speak of corrupt police, organized crime, and local vigilantes bearing some responsibility for the killings; nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights accuse police of abuses including extra-judicial killings. Instead of solving these crimes, the emphasis given to rising homicides and the "gang threat" by officials in Central America has been to pass legislation criminalizing tattoos and granting police broad powers to detain and imprison young people they suspect of gang involvement.
Local news reporters, who work under deadline pressures and without encouragement from their news desks, seldom do any follow-up reporting on these deaths, especially when the victims are young and poor, and thus little pressure is exerted on police to keep investigations open.
Gang youth are easy scapegoats, a convenient smokescreen for organized crime. They have become the principal target of militarized policing — disproportionate to their actual misdeeds. There are moral concerns to be raised about this, but there are also questions that focus on the use (and possible abuse) of public funds, and those are the issues more journalists ought to be considering. While there are a handful of organizations engaging in violence-prevention work with youth gang members or working to help U.S. criminal deportees rebuild productive lives, the overall picture is largely one of abandonment, repression and escalating violence.
In 2005 in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security began a highly visible national crackdown on "immigrant gangs," in particular the Mara Salvatrucha. These approaches are popular, in part, because they play into the public's sense of insecurity and fears of terrorism. However, these repressive approaches do not address important issues such as the social marginalization of these youngsters and the environments of impunity in which gang violence, vigilantism and organized crime vendettas thrive. It could be argued that these policies instead contribute to the spread of gang violence and to the revolving door by which gang members move (or are moved) from the United States to Central America and then back again as they attempt to survive.
But for the public to engage in these kinds of discussions, journalists will need to learn how to tell the stories that few of them yet seem to see.
Protesters raised a skeleton outside the federal building in Los Angeles to symbolize their fears of what would happen if Proposition 187 passed. The ballot initiative, denying social services, health care and public education to undocumented immigrants and their children, received 59 percent of the vote in 1994, but the vote was later overturned when a federal court ruled it unconstitutional. Photos and captions © Donna DeCesare.
Deported youths with affiliations to Los Angeles gangs end up in Central America far from their families. Edgar used to live in Los Angeles with his mother and brothers. When his brother Jose was murdered by a rival gang in Los Angeles, his mother sent Edgar to El Salvador to "protect" him from Los Angeles gangs. But the murder affected Edgar. He responded by joining his brother's Mara Salvatrucha gang in San Salvador, tattooing his mother's name, Ana, and a tombstone with his brother's gang name, "Shy Boy, " on his back, and using his dead brother's gang name as his own. Two years after this photograph was taken Edgar was murdered by death squad vigilantes in the barrio where he lived. San Salvador, El Salvador. 1997.
In Talisman, Guatemala, Mara Salvatrucha gang members wait to cross into Mexico as they attempt to return to the United States. Local children listen to stories of gang wars and are influenced by a culture that mixes gang tattoos with the image of Santa Muerte [Saint Death], the saint of criminals and the dispossessed in Mexican culture — and a reminder of their indigenous roots.
Federal agents from the Violent Gang Task Force arrest youths suspected of being undocumented gang members. These youths are likely to be deported. Los Angeles, California. 1994.
Gang members mete out their own form of punishment to one another. San Salvador, El Salvador. 1997.
Friends attend a funeral for a slain Mara Salvatrucha gang member in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Donna DeCesare is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism. She was a 2003 Ochberg Fellow of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. A collection of her photo novelas about youth affected by war, trauma and gangs can be seen at www.pixelpress.org.