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San Salvador, El Salvador

The first time he saw a deportee from Los Angeles, Freddy was struck by the man’s tattoos – and the respect everyone paid him. The man looked different from the others.

By the 1990s, the first Salvadorean gang members had returned to the country, deported by the USA. Nobody could guess what was coming.

At 21.000 square kilometres, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. During the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Salvadorean natives emigrated illegally to the USA: they were running away from civil war, from hunger caused by war or simply from chronic hunger.

Most of them settled in Los Angeles.They had a hard time adjusting to life in the
enormous, unfamiliar city. Their children struggled to fit in and often suffered the
violence of the neighbourhood gangs, one of the distinctive features of contemporary urban culture. In time, Salvadorean boys joined two of the most powerful gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha- 13 and the Mara Calle 18 –and eventually ruled them. Mara comes from marabunta: an invasion of out-of-control killer ants.

The Maras represented a society of their own, an alternative to the society that had
rejected or disdained them. In the face of the uncertain and hostile, the Maras asserted their roots and became a collective, organized way of maintaining a common identity.

As the Maras prospered, the local authorities grew concerned and deportations began. The gang members – migrants’ children – were forced to go back to their parents’ country, a country many of them hardly knew. They brought a particular culture back with them.

In San Salvador, small neighbourhood gangs already existed, but their quarrels began with break-dance and, at their worst, ended with knives. The deportees from Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 introduced baggy pants, shaved heads, tattoos, guns and much more cruelty, together with a number of “entrepreneurial� strategies that turned the local gangs into big business units.

Freddy was ten at the time. In his house there were no yells, fights or blows, unlike many of the neighbours’: his mother didn’t have anyone to fight with. She used to tell Freddy that when he was a baby, his father tried to stop a friend from beating up his wife, the friend stabbed him and Freddy’s father bled to death alone in the street. But Freddy was never sure if his mother was telling the truth.

He didn’t go to school very often; his mother tried to send him, but he didn’t see the
importance of attending classes. Most days he would just skip school and hang around. His mother was a maid, working all day in other people’s houses. His two sisters took care of him, spoiling him and turning him into their little plaything. His neighbours called him a faggot, a wimp. When he was eleven, Freddy decided it was time to show them he could stand up for himself. He said he joined the Maras to belong to a respected and powerful institution.

In my neighbourhood there were some guys that had joined the Maras, and everybody respected them. The guys used drugs and stole, everybody was afraid of them. And I started hanging out with them, so that I’d get respected too.

Those guys were part of the Mara Salvatrucha –and they made Freddy wait for
years until one day they finally accepted him. That day, four of his buddies beat him up for thirteen seconds. Freddy was fourteen: if he cried or complained, he wouldn’t be accepted. He took it like a man and they started calling him Kruger. And so he became one of them, a homeboy or homie.

They were my family, the people who love you, take care of you, risk their life for you. They taught me good things: how to show respect, stick together, help each other out. And also bad things, like to kill, to steal, to use drugs and sell them.

Rapid urban growth, in combination with economic crisis and weak institutions, contributes to youth violence and crime

The first time he was about to stab someone, Kruger hesitated. They had ambushed an 18 gang member in a payback job – there were always paybacks to take care of – and his buddy told Freddy to slash him. Kruger thought of those movies where it seemed so easy, but he couldn’t do it. One of the homies forced his arm against the other guy’s flesh, and they called him a wimp and a faggot once more. He never hesitated again. He moved on from glue and marijuana to crack and cocaine, he lost all sense of compassion, he covered his body with the insignia of his barrio –his gang.

The tattoos mean I’m gonna be there forever, and I won’t betray them. They mean I don’t turn my back on my friends or myself: if an enemy stops me in the street, I can’t say I’m not MS, because it’s written on me.

The gang is a territorial institution. Its identity is based on a permanent state of war
with the enemy gang. Its goal is to keep the neighbourhood under control, beating up or killing intruders, as a matter of pride and for commercial reasons, to keep their extortion and drug businesses running. For the homies, stepping out of their gang territory into another part of the city is a very dangerous ride, a military operation. The enemy can attack or kill them at any moment. The gang codes are grounded in violence: in order to earn “respect�, the gang members have to show off their courage – or insanity. Kruger speaks now, quite respectfully, of a homie who burnt his sister-in-law alive.

Were you afraid of dying, at that time?

No. I thought more about my gang than about myself. I didn’t have kids, I had nothing. The only thing that mattered to me was showing my homies I could be really bad, I could be trusted. I never thought I was gonna live. I knew I could get killed any second and I never thought about what I was gonna do later on. I never imagined I could live this long. I only thought, hey what am I gonna do right now, I’m running out of crack, I gotta get some more.

Freddy looks much older than his real age, twenty-six. He says he actually feels like he’s been alive for centuries, but now he thinks “Yes, maybe I’ll become an old man, like forty or fifty.� Those years in Kruger’s life were full of secret stories, punctuated by the death of friends.

Kruger was completely addicted to crack, he did some time in prison, he got out. One day one of his best buddies asked Kruger to second him in a fight. Kruger didn’t go because he was too high on crack and his friend bled to death. The cops who arrested him simply refused to take him to the hospital. That night Kruger decided to quit the drug. He thought it was a way of making his friend’s death mean something.

By the end of the 1990s, Kruger contacted a local organization called Homies Unidos that works with “non active gang members�, trying to help them give up violence. There he met Ringo, a famously tough guy, who made him think he might be on the wrong path. Then Ringo too was killed by a bullet; but in those meetings Kruger met a nurse, moved in with her, and they had a son, and, three years later, a daughter.

During this time, he was on and off the streets; sometimes he was away, sometimes he
was back. Sometimes his son asked him for candy or a soda and Freddy couldn’t give it to him. He was demoralized: he couldn’t get a job, he had no money. And so he started stealing again: if he had stolen for drugs, he said, why wouldn’t he steal for his child? Reintegration into society is tough for mareros, and Freddy has his past written on his skin.

When you’re marked, nobody wants to give you a job. They even made this law that any man with a gang tattoo can be arrested, even if he’s not doing anything.

In 2003, the Salvadoran government enacted the “Iron Hand Law�, which allowed the police to detain any person bearing a tattoo or minors involved in violence. In the meantime, the law has been declared unconstitutional.

At the same time, the Maras continue to grow in the cities of Central America and their
numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. They charge “protection� to merchants,
neighbours and transportation workers, and they’re said to be very active in drug, weapon and human trafficking along the frontiers. The international expansion of their businesses allows them to escape to neighbouring countries to hide out with fellow Maras - or bring in gang members from other countries who are unknown to local police.

In 2005, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in Latin America: 54,7 per 100.000.(1) The government blames the Maras for two thirds of the murders. In El Salvador, anybody can get a weapon. Many bars and restaurants show signs prohibiting clientele carrying guns. City-dwellers ask for more security.

Four years ago, Kruger and a friend were shot in the street. His friend died and Kruger
took a bullet in the chest. He spent days between life and death. He thought that if
God had decided to save him, it was because he wanted him for something else, so he had to start a new life.

God didn’t allow me to die. My friends are all dead, but not me: if I’m saved, it’s for something. It must not be for a bad thing, because God is a good guy; he lets bad things happen to you so that you learn.

Now Freddy is afraid of death, of not being there when his children need him, of not being able to stop them from becoming like him. He’s very concerned that they should not be like him. His marks prevent him from getting a regular job: he drives a taxi in the city and says he dreams of having a car of his own. Sometimes the police stop him, and when they order him to pull up his sleeves and see the tattoos, they threaten him and take all the money he made in the day. Freddy is constantly on guard:

My problem now is that the MS homies may want to kill me, because I left them. Or the 18 guys could catch me in the street and kill me for the tattoos I have. Or the police can set me up with a story they invented. I’m still a gang member. The day I get killed the papers won’t say a taxi driver was killed, they’ll say a gang member was killed. So why fool myself and think I’m not anymore one of them, if I’m marked forever. No, I’m a non active gang member.

Did you consider leaving the city, going to a safer place?

Yes, sometimes I think of going to the countryside, try to start a new life there. But the truth is I wouldn’t know how to live there, what to do. I’m so much of a city man, you know…