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 best—robbing, stealing cars, selling drugs and, sometimes, killing.
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 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.”