Five months into a historic ceasefire between El Salvador’s street gangs, El Faro profiles the complex history of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).
While the MS-13 is more commonly associated with menacing tattoos and violent initiation ceremonies, El Faro’s two-part investigation (See Part I and Part II, in their original Spanish) into the gang’s history shows that this was not always the case. When starting out at the bottom of the food chain in Los Angeles’ gang underworld, the Mara found itself attacked from all sides. The authors, Jose Luis Sanz and Carlos Martinez, claim that the gang’s fearsome reputation had to be earned, and was the result of persecution from white and Mexican gangs in the city.
The gang that [MS-13 member] “Satan” joined in 1990 was a pariah.
When Salvadorans flocked to California in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80s (to seek refuge from the horror that seized their country), Mexicans and their American-Mexican descendants, Chicanos, had had decades to organize into gangs to stand up to white contempt and did not welcome newcomers in their streets.
So Salvadorans formed their own gang to stand up to pressure from other latinos, finding themselves looked at in disgust by Mexicans and their descendants. It is not easy being the new kid on the block and expecting others to invite you to play with them. Even if the game consists of waging war.
As in any ecosystem, in order to survive it is necessary to learn who eats whom. When the Mara Salvatrucha appeared in Southern California it was clear that any street gang could fall prey to any other. At the top of the food chain there was only the powerful Mexican Mafia, the organization of the Lords, which ultimately decided who could play and who could not.
The Mara Salvatrucha, for example, could not play.
La Fulton, the clique that Satan began directing in 1991, was the only cell of Mara Salvatrucha throughout the San Fernando Valley in southern California, where at least 75 other gangs were warring for control at the time. The Mara was a common enemy of them all.
Sanz and Martinez paint an unfamiliar picture of the Mara Salvatrucha in its early days: that of a small group being victimized by other, larger criminal players. In addition to building a reputation as a dangerous foe, the Mara had to find allies in more powerful gangs, gangs like the Mexican Mafia.
Some believe that the Mara Salvatrucha was born in 13th street in Southwest Los Angeles. The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, has said this in public without batting an eye. The problem is that this street does not exist. Its place in the city of star-lined and gang-infested streets ranks Pico Boulevard, home to several Latino stores. It runs parallel to 12th Street, which runs north to the now restored downtown, and 14th Street, which appears and disappears one block south.
There are also those who think that the Mara Salvatrucha emerged from a split in the 18th Street Gang. This would not be out of character in the world of big promises of glory on the street and fragile loyalties between gangs. The 18th Street Gang itself was born in the late ’40s out of a split in the Clanton 14 gang, which has been around since the 1920s is probably the oldest Latino gang in California.
But no, MS-13 was not born of Barrio 18. The number 13 is actually a name that indicates homage to a criminal force majeure, the Lords, the Mexican Mafia, which reigns in Southern California. The Mara Salvatrucha would take several years to build that friendship and that number.
The transition into one of the most ruthless transnational criminal gangs was not an easy one. The Mara Salvatrucha, like other street gangs, emerged from humble beginnings. While most analysts believe that the gang got its start in Los Angeles-area prisons in the 1990s, its roots date back farther than that, to a small group of teenagers in the Salvadoran community in the 1970s:
In the late ‘70s in LA, the Mara Salvatrucha was just a bunch of ragged teenagers, mostly heavy metal fans. They called themselves “stoners” in reference to rock and the influence of the Rolling Stones, as did other youth gangs — like the Mid City Stoners and The Hole Stoners — who listened to rock and smoked marijuana on street corners and parks in their neighborhoods.
No member of the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners was over 18 years. Most had come to the United States recently, with his parents fleeing poverty in El Salvador. They were the most recent batch of migrants to arrive and none could say that their “territory” was entirely theirs, with no blacks, Mexicans or Koreans.
Still, speaking within the Mara Salvatrucha of stoners is to invoke the pure, the original, the real thing. In the Mara, which maintains a blurred memory preserved by oral traditions, they say that none of these early pioneers are alive, but gangsters who cooly claim to have joined in those early days are aware of the prestige this gives them. Invoking the blurred past is a hallmark of the constant war for respect being waged in the gang.
The LAPD has records of the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners dating back to 1975. Researchers like Tom Ward, of the University of California, have documented the foundation of small cliques or core stoners of the MS in 1978.
It is uncertain when it first began, but some veteran Salvatruchos from LA in the late ‘70s claim that a dozen stoners began meeting regularly at the Seven Eleven that still exists at the intersection of Westmoreland Avenue and James M. Wood Street. There, at that Seven Eleven, is probably where the first clique of the Mara Salvatrucha began. There are still, in Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang members who belong to it.
The Salvatruchos felt tough. Their tight jeans torn at the knees, black shirts with album covers of ACDC, Led Zeppelin or Kiss, and long hair all shouted defiance. They were involved in fights with similar groups, stole car cassette players and became infamous in schools like Berendo Middle School, four blocks from the intersection of Normandie Avenue and Pico Boulevard. Some even boasted of being satanic while singing Hell Bent for Leather, by Judas Priest. But they hardly had any ambition beyond going to the next concert and feeling powerful by raising their fists into the air and raising two fingers, simulating a pair of horns. For the moment.
This had changed by the mid-1980s, when the Mara first started to flex its muscle on Los Angeles’ criminal scene. It was at this stage that the gang became a presence in area prisons, which would eventually serve as places where MS-13 members could improve their activities, trading information on the best ways to run criminal operations.
By 1985 most of the MS cliques had moved past their stoner identity and in the following years took up small-scale drug trafficking, or extorted money from corner drug dealers in their areas.
Controlling the street made no sense if you could not get financial benefit from it. They competed with other gangs in order to win in all categories: presence, control, violence … money. [MS-13 affiliated woman] La Chele remembers how the homies came out of jail talking in new terms about the arts of intimidation and power, learned from long cell conversations. She, herself near the end of a brief stay in a prison, found herself bringing order to her clique, which was losing money because it only taxed local drug dealers once a week.
“The homie who was in charge of extortions asked me, ‘How do you think you can improve our method, coming out of jail?’ And I said, “Simon, you got to charge rent every day, plus the corner dealers can see that red truck of yours from a mile away. When they see it they hide and that’s why you don’t·manage to get anything.”
The gang’s group identity became stronger with its rising profile, reinforced by the reputation that it had gained from other rival gangs. This strong identity makes a powerful recruiting tool, and makes dismantling the gang nearly impossible. El Faro spoke with a former gang member in Los Angeles about the current gang truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, who asserted that gang membership is a central part of an individual’s life. It is not something that can easily be given up or altered, and because the truce is a direct threat to this, it is unlikely to last for very long.
Alejandro Alvardo is 38 and was a member of 18th Street. Although he is Guatemalan, he has lived in Los Angeles so long that Spanish does not come easy to him. He left the guns and the streets long ago, and now works for [anti-gang NGO] Homies Unidos as does Alex Sanchez, trying to get other gang members to leave the gang behind as well. He speaks about breaking the cycle of gang violence while idly eating a sandwich in the ground floor of the Curacao building.
He was told of the truce in El Salvador between the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street Gang, and of the drastic, almost unbelievable effect it has had on the number of homicides. He does not seem surprised. Alejandro Alvardo, it seems, is not easily surprised.
“Yes, you can reach an agreement, but there needs to be more people, because what good is peace if no resources, if no alternatives? Do you understand?”
“Here too there was a time, around the year 1993, in which they tried to make peace, and not go, you know, shooting up everything. It worked for a while. But it was ruined by custom, which says this cannot exist, because we are enemies and there will always be something deep inside that will not allow that to continue. It is as if these were temporary oases, like if you were to put glasses of water in the desert, do you understand? But if someone comes and takes away those glasses, because your life depends on water you end up going back, because the gang ends up feeling like the water you need to live.”
“So that peace was broken?”
“Yes, it broke. Yes.”
“Because someone is always going to start something. Because in a gang, just because one person changes everyone else will. I stopped doing drugs 12 years ago. I do not do drugs, do not smoke, and I smoked all my life. Two policemen killed my brother and my cousin, and I do not think now that all cops are bad, mind you. I mean, I am a witness that a person can change to that extent. But everyone has their point, each person has, you know, their check point to know where they are.”
“So nobody can force you to leave the gang?”
“How? How could they if you are so hurt, if they have violated you, abused you, damaged you physically and mentally? How can you accept that? Do you understand me? It’s like telling an alcoholic not to drink. Yeah right! They’ll continue drinking. They will find a way to drink, you know?”