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El Salvador Comes to Grips With Gangs

Deportees from U.S. feed the violence of groups targeted in disputed crackdown.

December 13, 2004|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ILOPANGO, El Salvador — Minutes after hooded commandos stormed his tiny shack in the middle of the night and hustled him off to jail, Juan Carlos Diaz was smiling.

Had he shot a bus fare collector in cold blood before 25 horrified commuters, as the police said? The 18-year-old high school dropout grinned before answering: "Not even close."

But he acknowledged joining the M-18 gang four months earlier and proudly looked down at the 10-inch-high "18" tattooed on his chest and abdomen. "For me," he said, "that number is everything."

That appeal has attracted an estimated 30,000 Salvadorans to M-18 and its rival, Mara Salvatrucha, twin armies whose reign of terror has left this country -- urban and rural areas alike -- paralyzed with fear. The gangs claim an average five homicide victims a day.

On the October night Diaz was arrested, the teams of heavily armed police nabbed 15 other gang members, all suspected in killings, in this warren-like slum bordering the capital, San Salvador. The raids were part of Operation Super Firm Hand, a controversial anti-gang campaign -- praised by a shattered public but criticized by human rights activists -- that gives El Salvador's police sweeping arrest powers to combat the increasingly sadistic violence.

Government officials, including Deputy Citizens' Security Minister Rodrigo Avila, blame the violence at least in part on the deportation of nearly 12,000 Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States since 1998. Many are prison-hardened former gang members in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities who were sent back here as illegal immigrants.

"The deportations are at the core of the problem," Avila said. "Gangs here now copy the whole L.A. gang culture, the way they talk, the clothes they wear and the absolute ruthlessness."

Many deportees simply join their counterpart gangs here upon arrival, often gaining leadership roles because they are generally the most violent in the ranks, National Civil Police Chief Ricardo Menesses said in an interview.

Deported gang members have little choice but to rejoin a gang, said Eric Henriquez, 37, a former M-18 member in East Los Angeles who was deported here in 1998. Henriquez now heads Homies United, a group that provides rehabilitation counseling to gang members. Most of its clients arrived here with no money, no support group, no job prospects and knowing little Spanish, if any.

"Typically, they've spent most of their lives in the States. So they are dumped in a foreign culture and immediately face discrimination," Henriquez said. "Employers see those tattoos and close their doors. You can die of hunger here. So you look for any network you can find."

The bloodletting has risen to such levels that the gangs' methods resemble those of Mexican drug cartels. To deliver a threat to Avila in October, one group of thugs made its point by randomly gang-raping a teenager and forcing her mother to call the official with the warning, an incident Avila discussed in an interview.

The brutality of the gangs' crimes is increasingly horrific. Homicide victims, including many women and teenage girls, often are found so mutilated that Spanish priest Jose Maria Morataya, who runs a San Salvador rehabilitation and job training center for former gang members called Poligono Don Bosco, suspects that some gang members practice satanic rituals.

In September, M-18 members attacked a teenage girl in San Salvador, stabbing her in the neck and abdomen before beheading her, police said. Gang rivalries were at the root of the killing of a 16-year-old mother here last year. Gang members also killed and dismembered her 5-month-old daughter.

Most of the gang killings are committed by members who exact lethal revenge on rivals, their girlfriends and family members for daring so much as to set foot on their territory -- or for just belonging to an enemy gang. But ordinary Salvadorans are routinely touched by the gangs' power.

Money is extorted from residents and businesses in exchange for protection, and refusing gangs' demands can mean a death sentence like that meted out to Diaz's alleged victim, 21-year-old bus worker Yamil Hernandez, who was unwilling to turn over the day's receipts.

"He was a good person. He never drank. All he wanted to do was work," said the victim's grandmother, Maria Eulalia Hernandez, who was interviewed in a neighboring barrio the day after Diaz's arrest.

Her grandson, a high school wrestler, had steered clear of gangs and was saving up to go to university or take courses to become a chef. She said the family was too frightened of the gangs to file a criminal complaint after the killing. In fact, the victim's brother, 18-year-old Luis, fled to the United States in October after receiving gang threats.

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