Who are they? Where did they come from and what do they want?
They’re descendants of the wave of refugees from El Salvador’s vicious civil war of the 1970’s and 80’s, who fled to El Norte, many landing in Los Angeles. As the newest and poorest of new arrivals they were discriminated against by those who had arrived earlier. For protection, opportunity and community they formed gangs. These groups took their names from the barrios of downtown LA. The main Salvadoran gang faction is called MS-13, after 13th St., in the Ramparts district of downtown LA, while a second major group is Barrio Dieciocho, after 18th St. Contact with the justice system often turned out badly for them, especially the younger generation. As illegal border crossers or released prisoners or merely undocumented persons they are regularly deported back to El Salvador, where they face discrimination again because of their lack of skills, criminal background and poor command of Spanish. Thus gang families that originated in LA as local clubs morphed into organized crime units that now extend back to Central America and to New York, the mid-Atlantic region (a strong presence there) and Spain.
Gang rivalries in El Salvador nowadays are intense. Weapons are available and abundant. Alternatives to crime and violence – job opportunities, education and training as openings to middle class life – are scant, especially for gang members bearing tattoos and criminal records. The result is a country with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. El Salvador has 70 homicides per 100,000 population per year. By contrast the rate in the US is under 5 per 100,000 per year.
The Maras inhabit a parallel world, a minority slice of the population feared and excluded by the majority. They’re like Yakuza in Japan or the Camorra in Naples, separated from the mainstream by such a distance it’s hard to conceive they could work their way back to the center. They brand themselves with tattoos to show irreversible group loyalty and alienation from the majority. And yet the iconography of their graffiti, with its Old English script like diploma lettering, suggests that they crave a conventional stamp of respect, status and formal validation that mirrors the values of the society they are separated from.
Behind the Maras lies the inescapable fact that in today’s predatory musical chairs economy there’s not enough room for everybody in the mainstream. But even beyond socioeconomic factors is a second element, the need in the human heart, on general principles, for an out-group, an untouchable class, a minority available for the majority to fear and despise. Yet the excluded ones are still with us. They fall away from the center and persist in their own parallel society. Hence, “I’m Still Here.”