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.
The authorities viewed the gangs purely as a law-and-order problem. They declared a war on gangs and made gang membership illegal. By the time I arrived in El Salvador in 2004 to make a film about gang warfare there, the prisons were full of gang members. But could this approach solve the problem?
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.
The boys I got to know were often charming, polite and very funny. They were also killers. One of the principal characters in my film is now in prison for murder, and two others are in jail for attempted murder. In spite of their gang bravado, most of them seemed sadly lost. Many of their parents abandoned them when they were young to seek work in the U.S. For these boys, the gang was everything: their family, their only source of companionship and, unfortunately, their moral code.
Watching a 17-year-old gang member phone his mother in the U.S. -- who he hasn't seen in 10 years -- telling her over and over again how much he misses her and wants to be with her, is heartbreaking. To see him the next day spouting his gang bravado, getting ready to go on a kill, filled me with a total sense of hopelessness for his future. He was a boy masquerading as a man.
How could they kill so easily? I began to see how, if all around you it is seen as normal -- as a duty, as a test of loyalty to the only family you have -- then it becomes a line that's far easier to cross. Murder seemed to be the ultimate way of promoting gang identity and a sense of belonging. It also seemed to make life more interesting. If you are in a permanent state of war with a sworn enemy, a mundane life is made more dramatic.
The problem is far more complex than the authorities claim. As long as the U.S. continues to deport hardened criminals to countries that can't deal with them, as long as millions of Central Americans are forced to abandon their children to search for work in the U.S., as long as the Salvadoran authorities do nothing to try to understand why boys join gangs in the first place, then El Salvador will remain one of the world's most violent places. For many boys, joining a gang is their only choice.