When I First met Duke, he was ironing his shirt. “You gotta look clean, man! You can’t go ‘round with a creased shirt!” Like many homies, Duke was great at ironing. As I was to find out later, he also was handy with an AK-47.
Duke was 30, handsome and charismatic, with a couple of lovely kids. He spoke his English straight out of the streets of Latino L.A.; he loved to rap, and he talked sentimentally about his homeboys, part of the Hollywood Locos section of the 18th Street gang. Except Duke didn’t live in L.A. anymore but in downtown San Salvador, El Salvador.
Like hundreds of other gang members in this small Central American nation, Duke was deported from the U.S. after being convicted of a criminal offense—in his case, robbery. Although he had lived most of his life in Los Angeles, he was never a citizen. As soon as he got into trouble with the law, he was deported to the country where he was born but that he hardly knew. Together with other deported gang members from cities such as L.A. and Houston, Duke helped set up 18th Street in El Salvador, a country awash in weapons from a decades-old civil war but without the means to deal with U.S.-trained gang members. In a few years, the deported gangsters helped give El Salvador one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
I got to know a group of teenage members of the 18th Street gang from a housing project in the heart of the city. Unlike Duke, most of these boys had never been near the U.S., but they had adopted the behavior of their U.S.-trained mentors. Most days not much happened—the boys smoked a lot of grass and watched TV. Then, suddenly, it would all kick off.
They would get word that one of their comrades had been killed by their rival gang and sworn enemy, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS, which also has origins in Los Angeles. Phone calls would be made, weapons obtained and off they would go to avenge their friends. Wakes for fallen comrades were so commonplace that they seemed like little more than social occasions to meet gang members from other parts of the city.