It is common when talking about gangs — or maras — in El Salvador to mention only the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. However, they are far from the only ones.
The second digital edition of Revista Factum features a broad investigation, developed over many months, by Salvadoran anthropologist Juan Jose Martinez, about the other gang members that have also been deported from the US: the Sureños. Martinez was able to enter the world of the Sureños and go beyond what the media covers in their daily news; he looks at their origins and the development of this lesser-known Salvadoran gang. He writes of shootouts, drug dealing, poverty, vengeance and violence. This is the story of the Sureños.
Thursday, January 17, 2013, 3 a.m. A large man left a modest casino in Ciudad Merliot after a night of gambling and partying. A woman walked beside him and they headed towards a white Volvo parked in the casino parking lot.
Once they were inside the vehicle, three men approached and took out their weapons: a 30-30 rifle and two pistols. And they opened fire. They aimed for his head, but the man wriggled down into the interior of the car. He was also armed and the hired killers knew it – for this reason, they took care not to get too close. The large man took advantage of a break in the shooting to speed away. He managed to escape, with some bullets inside him. He was bleeding a great deal and when he was far enough away, his female companion took the wheel of the Volvo and drove as fast as she could towards the San Rafael hospital in Santa Tecla.
Once they arrived there, she sounded the horn and screamed for help; the security guards moved the bleeding body of the man out of the car and into the emergency ward, and everyone disappeared inside. But the shooters were afraid of this man and they were terrified of the possibility that he might still be alive. So after a moment of doubt, the three hit men decided to follow the Volvo. They parked in front of the hospital and prepared to finish what they started. Without getting out of the car, the shooters unloaded all the bullets left in their rifle and pistols, and then took off, without knowing their victim’s fate.
Men who are scared make mistakes, and these men made many in a single night. The police captured them without much difficulty at the Salvador del Mundo roundabout, 10 minutes from the hospital where their victim was being treated.
When the police began questioning the shooters, after shoving them out of the enormous white pick-up in which they were traveling, they realized that the three had been deported from southern California not long before, and that the man they had so carefully tried to kill was Javier Osiris Resendez, better known in the streets as “Casper,” who had been expelled from southern California in the 1990s. All of them were sons of southern California — all of them were Sureños gang members.
Below, a news report by Salvadoran news station Canal 33 on the capture of the shooters.
California has attracted migrants for decades — the US state is a powerful magnet that has attracted railway laborers and skilled workers alike. Other times, the state has been more like a bright light, calling to adventurers and opportunists with brilliant radiance. During the first decades of the 20th century, California was more like a drain, sucking up what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “human waste” — the leftovers from other countries.
Just as the Italians and the Irish filled the ports of New York in the 19th century, the Mexicans began to pour into California in the following century. These disordered “waves” of migrants contributed to the formation of numerous gangs, or youth collectives, throughout the state. There are currently an estimated 400 gangs operating in Los Angeles alone, making the city something of a US gang mecca.
California could also be defined as a space that’s both orderly and chaotic. There are hundreds of gangs fighting each other for territorial control, turf for drug sales, or simply to attain more status. It is a territory marked by many invisible lines, bringing young men together into groups and then driving them apart; a cycle that pits them against each one another, brings them back together, and make them fight again.
The first major dividing line in this space is an ethnic one. The African American gangs are willing to fight to the death against the Anglo and neo-Nazi gangs — white, lower-class youths who usually build their identities around motorcycles — the Hispanic gangs, and the Asian gangs. The second division occurs within these primary divisions. The Hispanic gangs are divided into two groups: Sureños, which are all of the gangs that live in southern California — we are talking about hundreds of gangs in this region, the great majority composed of Mexican descendants — and Norteños, who are their northern kin. Both confederations of gangs have been at war since the mid-1970s, the product of events that occurred before the majority of current gang members were even born.
In the 1950s, a young Mexican named Luis Flores, known as “Huero Buff,” entered the Deuel Vocational Institution, a juvenile detention center located in San Joaquin county. He belonged to a gang from southern California called “Hawaian Garden,” from a housing project with the same name. This type of gang was common in the poor neighborhoods, or “barrios,” of the region. Little creativity was spent on naming these gangs, which generally took on the same name of the neighborhood or housing project they were from, and which they “protected.” This meant that if the gang was created on 12th street in the neighborhood of Pomona, it would be called the “Pomona 12 Street,” while the gang from the Maravilla housing project was called “Los Maravilla.”
In the back row on the far left: Luis “Huero Buff” Flores, the founder of La Eme, popularly known as the Mexican Mafia.
Thus, the Mexican neighborhoods filled with youths wearing loose-hanging clothes and knives up their sleeves. They limited themselves to fighting with gangs the next neighborhood over, engaging in small-time, simple robberies, and “taking care of the barrio,” which was a fairly major activity in those years. They went around smoking marijuana on street corners and becoming embroiled in serious fights with the gang from the neighboring barrio.
Huero Buff ganged up with other youths of Mexican heritage with the fundamental goal of defending himself. However, this goal began to evolve, as the alliance gave them power and strength. The group began to grow and swell with youths from the Mexican neighborhoods and by 1960, they were considered a dangerous group within the Deuel Vocational Institution.
It was that year that the administrators of the California penitentiary system committed their first error. They decided to move some members of this new group to adult prisons. The measure probably aimed to eliminate the group by putting its members into contact with older and more experienced prisoners, but the result was like sending someone with the flu into a metro. One of many gang legends is that a member of Huero Buff’s group used a knife to slit the throat of a black prisoner who tried to abuse him. They say that he did it in front of everyone in the prison courtyard. The confrontations with other gangs — generally made up of African Americans — multiplied, as Huero Buff’s gang continued to grow. Authorities tried to break them up by moving them to different prisons, but wherever they showed up they multiplied; they reproduced. In this going and coming through the California prison system, the new group of Chicanos also became friends.
In the isolation cells where they often spent days, members of Huero Buff’s group met a well-known mafia member of Croatian descent, who had grown up in the Hispanic barrios of eastern Los Angeles. He was known as Joe “Pigleg” Morgan. This man got them into the heroin business, and got them key contacts that would help them move to the next level. However, perhaps the most important contribution he made to the group was an idea: if the Italians could have the Italian Mafia, why couldn’t the Mexicans do the same thing? This is how the Mexican Mafia was born, or what its members affectionately called “La Eme.”
By the end of the 1960s, the group was present in nearly all of the state’s prisons. All gang members of Mexican descent that went to jail, from any barrio in southern California, immediately reported to the members of La Eme. It didn’t matter what gang they were from — once inside, they would only be Sureños. They were united by race. It didn’t matter if two Hispanic gangs were locked in a deadly battle on the streets; in prison they had to forget about it and take on the Sureño identity.
La Eme became a kind of control body for the lives of Sureños in prison. As a symbol of this control, they added “13” to the name of each and every one of the Hispanic gangs in southern California, since the letter “M” in the Spanish alphabet is the 13th letter. This was one way they exerted their control. The old Mexican gangs began using this number and the walls of every neighborhood were soon full of 13s and the word “Sureños.”
This apparent unification should not be confused with peace. The southern gangs maintain a complex web of conflicts and alliances among them. Barrios pitted against barrios continue to murder each other every day. Nonetheless, two gang members from rival gangs, enemies to the death in the streets, may sleep bunk bed to bunk bed in the California prisons. Here, there is no room for disputes between Sureños. The African American gangs are strong and outbreaks of violence are an everyday occurrence. Anthropologist Abner Cohen explained these identity dynamics as follows: “Me against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; my cousin, my brother and I against the foreigner.” The mutating identity of the Sureños appears to have produced results: according to the Rocky Mountain Information Network, La Eme and their foot soldiers — the Sureños — are currently one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the United States.
Below, a defector from La Eme, Rene Enriquez, gives US officials debriefings on the structure and economic activity of La Eme. Video courtesy of American RadioWorks.
Sunday, March 22, 2002. In a house located on the Amatecampo beach, on the Salvadoran coast, some 70 youths dance to the beat of techno music. The property is big and the people are spread out. Everyone is drinking and smoking weed. There are some foreigners there some locals, surfers, and a few black sheep with elite surnames.
The party is called “Toxic Storm” and it has been organized by a group of local drug delaers. The theme revolves around the new illegal pills that they are selling at the party. There was also talk of a cake baked with imported drugs, whose slices would cost a good hunk of cash.
In order to give the party a dramatic and clandestine touch, one man was walking around the party with an Uzi machine gun, making it clear who was in charge. That man was Casper. He, along with another Sureño known as “D-Man” (Cristian Menjivar Hercules), had organized it. Just when the cake was about to be cut and the drugs were about to sold, some undercover cops pulled out their pistols. The place filled with police. The two men were arrested, along with 13 Salvadoran youths who began to cry and call for their parents.
Casper and D-Man were convicted and a judge sentenced them to five years in prison for trafficking illegal drugs. It could have been more, but the cake was actually stuffed full of cold medicine and other drugs that could be acquired easily in any pharmacy.
Below, a video report produced by El Salvador’s Central American University about what happened the night of the “Toxic Storm” party raid.
When he left prison, Casper had some new contacts. He started to get involved in low-level drug sales, which was enough for him to move into a two-story house in one of San Salvador’s exclusive neighborhoods and have security cameras, a new-model European car and extra money to go out with middle-class young women and former Catholic school students — benefits that he never would have had as just another deportee. Casper surrounded himself with other Sureños who had arrived from the same US state where he’d been expelled from. They were also looking for a respite, a space that would remind them of a place that was practically their native country.
Casper was deported from California in the mid-1990s, when El Salvador was still rising out of the devastation of its civil war. He was a member of one of southern California’s oldest gangs: “La Barrio 36.” Casper was respected among the Sureños. He wasn’t just one of the first men who had descended handcuffed and disoriented from the planes full of deported people in the Comalapa airport. He was also someone that the incessant chain of deportees from California could relate to.
There are plenty of Sureños who can speak about how much Casper helped them when they first arrived. Casper found work for some of them in the “call centers” that desperately needed English-speakers, without caring about how they looked or what criminal records they brought with them from the north. He helped others start a small methamphetamine sales business, gave them some protection, and waited for others at the airport with a local beer in hand.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
“I was alone. I was kind of lost; it wasn’t long ago that I had left ‘Califas’ [California] when I found the homie Casper,” one of the oldest Sureños in San Salvador said nostalgically, as he sat on a park bench. “He was with other crazy Sureños in the Cuscatlan park. Man, I saw them and I recognized them by their clothes — some Dickies and Ben Davis’ overalls that didn’t exist here — and they approached me. ‘I’m a guero from Pomono 12 Street. I’m fucking alone, man, I’m fucking lost,’ I told them and Casper calmed me down. He let me stay with them and he gave me soup. The homies had a place above Heroes that was called Templo Mayo. After that I kept helping with that, helping the other homies.”
But not everyone tells nice stories about Casper. One woman talked about how Casper murdered two drug dealers in front of her who were interfering in his business. She said that afterwards, he visited her to ask whether she remembered anything about that night. She said she decided not to remember. Another person talked about how Casper threatened to kill him if he didn’t let one of his girlfriends work in his business. Others swore that they had been beaten unconscious on Casper’s orders or by Casper himself. Others simply decided it was not a good idea to tell nasty anecdotes about Casper.
There are also conflicts among the Sureños. The rifle bullets in Casper’s body confirm this. There have always been conflicts, even in California. However, not only is there a stronger government there — on that determinedly investigates every crime with a wide range of techonology — there is also La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. La Eme may not have prohibited violence between the Sureño gangs — that would be impossible — but it has regulated it; domesticated it. Drive-by shootings are prohibited; killing women or children is prohibited; and attacking another Sureño while he’s walking with his family is prohibited.
The list is long and everyone there knows that if they disobey La Eme they are giving them the “green light,” which means that all of the Sureño gangs should declare war on them. On the other hand, the members of these rebel gangs that fail to follow the rules, and that end up in jail, are received by the “Carnales” of La Eme (as the members of the gang are known). In short, the law is respected in southern California.
Several months before those three Sureños attacked Casper, there was a party in a San Salvador neighborhood. A Sureños party. Among the conversations that took place there was one in particular that would end in disaster. A Sureño from a San Fernando Valley gang, known as “Greems,” told the other Sureños a lie. He said his father was a member of La Eme and that in California the whole world knew that, and that everyone should respect him because he had a lot of influence in what was the mother of all the Sureño gangs.
The person listening to him was Mauricio Acuña, known as “Slick,” a recently deported Sureño who belonged to the “Lenox 13” gang. Slick, unsure what to do with such juicy gossip, decided to look for his friend Casper, who had given him a hand when Slick had been deported to El Salvador. Greems’ claims that his father was a member of La Eme was basically as though an employee of the US government had told another official that he was related to President Obama.
La Eme isn’t a name that’s mentioned lightly among the Sureño gang members; nobody knows for certain how far the hand of the Carnales can reach. It is possible that La Eme doesn’t have any influence in El Salvador, possible that La Eme doesn’t know that the gang’s “sons” are lost in this region. But it doesn’t matter: any gang member has respect and fear of La Eme built into their DNA.
Greems’ comments could not have been made at a worse moment. That was not just any party. They were meeting to begin the decision-making process regarding who would lead the Sureño groups in San Salvador. Many were pointing to Casper, since he had a broad network of contacts and was perhaps the most well-known and experienced homie. It was at that point that Greems, another contender for the crown, decided to tell Slick his lie.
Casper became enraged when he heard the lie, and they went together to look for the boastful talker, who Casper beat bloody. The results were not very extreme — just a broken nose and some bruises. Nonetheless, Casper stamped all over the prestige of that gang member in front of everyone. Symbolically, Casper killed him.
Southern California Comes to El Salvador
The deported gang members began to arrive in El Salvador at the end of the 1980s, like a slow drip. But it wasn’t until the end of 1992 that the drip became torrential. At least two flights arrived at the Comalapa airport (now known as Monseñor Romero) full of Salvadoran gang members who had grown up in southern California. The bulk of these Sureños belonged to two rival gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. The latter of these was an old gang founded by Mexicans in the 1960s near Rampart, California, which had begun opening its doors to youths from other countries, like El Salvador.
The other, the MS13, was a relatively new and unique gang. It was started by primarily Salvadorans at the beginning of the 1980s. Some 70 percent of the deported gang members belonged to these two gangs, according to police statistics. However, many Salvadorans migrated to regions where neither of these gangs were present, but where there were groups like White Fence 13, Pacoima 13, Crazy Rider 13, and a long list of other gangs that had adopted the Mexican Mafia’s last name.
When they were sent back to Salvadoran territory, many of them barely spoke Spanish and had few memories of the rural pre-war country that they had escaped from as children. Many left the Comalapa airport in buses en route to their home towns, or anywhere else they remembered having relatives. The war had changed everything, and in many cases where there used to be a relative, now there were only ashes.
One of the Sureños remembered this era as a time when everyone was looking for someone else. For those Sureños who belonged to the MS13 or the Barrio 18, it wasn’t difficult to find other members of their gang. In 1994, if you were from the MS13 and living in San Salvador, all you had to do was go to the bars in front of the Modelo market and you would find at least 60 homeboys drinking beer and eating ceviche. If you were a member of the Barrio 18, you just had to go stand in the Libertad park with your Dickies or Ben Davis overalls, and Nike Cortez shoes, and a large group of deported dieciocheros would soon be asking, “where do you come from, ese?” with the characteristic accent marking their “r.”
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
The large influx of members of these two gangs brought the war they had started in southern California to the streets of San Salvador and surrounding areas. This war required new soldiers who would wear the gangs’ letters and numbers as coats of arms, so they began recruiting Salvadoran youths. From then on, it was smooth riding for the MS13 and the Barrio 18.
However, if your gang was the “Shalimar 13,” from Orange County in Costa Mesa; the “Pacoimas 13,” from the San Fernando Valley; or the “Mirada Locos 13” of Hollywood, things were more difficult. Many of these gang members attached themselves to the two bigger gangs, like fleas to a lion, and moved around with them for a while. But this wasn’t the case for all of the Sureños. Southern California once tried to raise its head in El Salvador, although this has largely been forgotten by now.
Many deportees arrived in Quezaltepeque, La Libertad, in the 1990s. Quezaltepeque was one of the places that most forcefully expelled its residents in order to save them from the bombs and massacres that occurred in the early 1970s, and now Quezaltepeque was seeing them return, tattooed from head to foot, engaged in a different kind of war.
In addition to the MS13 and Barrio 18, members of another, older gang arrived in Quezaltepeque as deportees. It was one of the first gangs in southern California, founded by Mexican migrants at the beginning of the 20th century. This was the “White Fence 13,” so called because the neighborhood where it was founded so many years ago was isolated from other neighborhoods with a large white fence.
In the United States, this gang has a great deal of prestige — it has various members in La Eme and its territory is a large and impassable stronghold. In Quezaltepeque, though, its members were just 10 deportees fighting against two titans. Quezaltepeque was a violent place. After the death of one of the founders of the Barrio 18, MS13 members hung up his corpse and set it on fire. The White Fence 13 couldn’t compete with this. By the year 2000, all that was left of the gang was a couple of old walls left painted with the phrase “WF 13.” Those that survived the bloodbath escaped to Guatemala, where the White Fence 13, along with other Sureño gangs, have had a better time of it.
The “Craizy Rider 13” tried to make their way into the eastern Salvadoran city of San Miguel, but faced the problem of a historic war with the MS13, which began in Los Angeles. Not even walls remain with a reminder that they once existed in El Salvador. Another Sureño gang, the “Lenox 13,” fell apart in Lourdes, Colon, and the few members that remain hide their tattoos and keep their gaze down.
Out of all of the Sureño gangs, just one managed to survive the savage 1990s and develop in tropical El Salvador: the “Mirada Locos 13” of San Miguel. This gang decided to try something novel in those years. They took refuge in and integrated with one particular community: La Presita, a housing project of more than 2,000 residences. They lived there, took refuge, and just as the two major gangs did, they recruited local youths, turned them into Miradas Locos and gave them a 13. What did it matter if these boys didn’t know English and had never been to California?
Now, the Mirada Locos 13 is the third strongest gang in El Salvador. In fact, in San Miguel they are the main enemies of the MS13, and have a much stronger presence than the Barrio 18. One of their members, Gustavo Adolfo Parada, alias “El Directo,” was perhaps the most emblematic gang member of the 1990s.
However, this wasn’t an option for those who formed part of smaller gangs. Aside from those already mentioned, no other Sureño gang managed to bring together the necessary numbers needed to face down the beasts — the MS13 and Barrio 18 — in El Salvador. So they resorted to the only logic that they knew: the Sureños logic. They did what the Sureños do in California’s prisons, and joined together with no regard for what gang they originated from. They saw themselves as Sureños, no more, and they defended each other, with the conviction that a common history of deportation and abandonment united them. They saw El Salvador as a big and violent California prison.
Gang graffiti in southern California. Photo used with permission from Revista Factum.
In this way, a large number of Sureño groups emerged that were composed of — for example — two Pacoima 13 members, one Hollywood Crazy 13 member, one White Fence 13 member, and three gang members from Santa Anita in Costa Mesa. They saw that violence was only necessary on certain occasions and that what they really needed was a business. They started selling methamphetamines, ecstasy and anything else that wasn’t already a market dominated by the beasts. The idea was to avoid pissing them off, to the extent that this was possible.
And so, groups like Casper’s stayed alive by selling new drugs, taking over territories that didn’t interest the main gangs, sticking tightly together as though they lived in an enormous cell full of furious predators, and making and breaking alliances among each other like angry schoolboys. They managed to resist.