The Guardian • Issue #2039

US imperialism and the gangs of LA

Photo: Shane McCoy / US Marshals, Office of Public Affairs – (CC BY 2.0)

By November 2022 over 58,000 people, accused of having gang affiliations had been arrested in El Salvador, filling up its already overcrowded prisons. Most arrests were without warrants, a serious human rights violation. The crack down, called the Régimen de Excepción (State of Exception), follows the high murder rate that peaked on 26th March, 2022, with sixty-two deaths on that day. The gangs competed for control of territory in more than 90 per cent of the municipalities in El Salvador.

Conversely, in Los Angeles, California, the “gang capital” of the USA, there are over 8000 gangs, with 200,000 members. Many of these are Salvadorans, who had been deported “home,” to a country ripped apart by a long history of civil war and genocide. There they formed gangs, took over the drugs trade, and returned to the USA more violent than before. Latinx (strong cultural and language connections with Latin America) are not “predisposed” to forming violent youth gangs.

What is not discussed is that these gangs are a direct result of US neo-colonialism in Central America. It is this hidden, excluded, history that needs to be known to understand the consequences of the US’s nefarious activities.

In the 1980s and 1990s the US State Department and the Department of Defense used “low intensity” wars, also called a “total war at the grassroots level,” in Central America, to contain “communism.” In El Salvador it resulted in 72,000 deaths, the mass migration of over 500,000 people, the destabilisation of family and social structures, increased the corruption of government officials, while worsening the everyday life of ordinary Salvadorans.

Latinx fled to the USA, as the “land of opportunity,” with one in nineteen workers being undocumented. Latinx do the jobs that White Americans refuse to do, working in agriculture, as labourers and as nannies. Latinx make up 14 per cent of the US’s population of 325 million. Over 1.4 million Salvadorans live in the USA, 20 per cent of Salvador’s population of 6.6 million. Los Angeles has the second largest Salvadoran population, outside of El Salvador, remitting money back to their families, greatly helping the national economy. For the US State Department, the chickens are coming home to roost.

US neo-colonialism, through the globalisation of labour and capital, plays an important part in the cycle of crime; LA gangs are deported to El Salvador and then return to LA. It controls how people perceive themselves and their relationship to that self-definition. Studies of criminality and delinquency fail to see the dialectical relationship, between poverty, the prison system and deportation resulting in the formation of urban street gangs.

This excluded history begins with the US military involvement in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in the 1980s, under President Reagan. It directly led to mass migrations fleeing poverty, violence and corruption. Aviva Chomsky writes in Central America’s Forgotten History (2022), that these historical memories have been suppressed, with the US government accusing Central America of creating its own poverty, social unrest and violence. This image of Latinx with its youth violence is common in American popular culture.

The film, The Black Board Jungle (1955) starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, shocked the American audience when it was first released in cinemas. The sound track begins with Chuck Berry’s “Rock Around the Clock,” which began the Rock and Roll craze. It was the first film to examine the problem of juvenile delinquency in schools. It was followed by West Side Story (1961) and The Cross and the Switchblade (1970).

The TV series, Welcome Back Kotter (1975 to 1979), is a comedy bearing the same ethnic stereotypes. Dan Leopard describes The Black Board Jungle as “the conceptual template for an examination of otherness,” the other being Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrants. These films brought to the public attention the problems that the stereotyped Spanish-speaking immigrants were “causing” in White communities. The reality was that young men found it difficult to fit into an overtly racist USA. Social problems at home and in the community led to clashes with police and jail time. This failed to provide any solution to their poverty.

Mass migration to the US began in the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920), when 1.4 million died, and 350,000 crossed the border as refugees. They faced racism, riots, and lynchings. Between 1890 to 1930 over 8000 people were lynched, mainly African Americans, and Hispanics. Mexicans were rounded up and deported in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In the 1950s over one million Mexicans were deported under operation “wet back.”

These political attacks led to the formation of the Chicano movement (Spanish speakers who had been in the US for generations). Its leaning towards communism brought the attention of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) in the 1950s. In 1956 FBI Director J Edgar Hoover created COINTELPRO to investigate them.

“They utilise cleverly camouflaged movements, such as peace groups and civil rights groups to achieve their sinister purposes. While they as individuals are difficult to identify, the communist party line is clear.” As Enrique M Buelna makes clear in Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice (2019), the Chicano communists and their supporters were important in the workers’ struggle. Activists such as the Mexican-American Communist Party USA (CPUSA) leader Ralph Cuarón, a member of the National Maritime Union, played an important part in assisting the Latinx. The mass deportation solution continued, only increasing poverty and social unrest.

The reason for the large number of “illegal” immigrants since the 1980s, was President Reagan’s proxy wars against “communism” in Central America. The situation worsened in 1997, after President Bill Clinton declared a “war on drugs,” that greatly increased incarceration rates and deported criminals back to their “home” country. President George W Bush set up a special anti-gang force in El Salvador, resulting in increased violence, with millions fleeing as refugees.

Under the Obama administration’s policies, there was a surge of unaccompanied minors to the US. In 2015 President Donald Trump attacked mass immigration in his now infamous speech. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

For Trump’s America the number one border problem was the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), which is accused of committing brutal murders, rape and drug trafficking. Steven Dudley writes in MS 13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang (2020) that in reality it is a minor organisation, a surrogate community, el barrio, involved in petty drug dealing. It reinforces its internal bonds through violence. Gangs are social structures with a shared ethnicity or culture, which solidify their bonds by violent acts. In 2017, only 228 members of the MS-13, were amongst those 527,000 illegal immigrants who crossed into the US. It was certainly not the major invasion Trump fabricated. Deported back to El Salvador, they formed gangs for self-preservation, ending up creating a major problem, calling themselves marabunta, army ants.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), it is illegal for an employer to hire an individual they know is not legally authorised to work. These employment laws do not protect undocumented workers, leaving them open to deportation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. An employer may risk a fine if it sends a message to undocumented workers to accept the working conditions of employers, or be deported. The US federal minimum wage is US$7.25 per hour, but many do not even receive that. Laws such as the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, STEP (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988), and Proposition 184 (the three strikes act was passed in 1994), impacted gang members by the threat of deportation.

When Nicaragua’s Samoza regime was overthrown in 1979, Reagan claimed that communism was “at our doorstep.” It was the first revolutionary government in Latin America to gain power since the Cuban revolution of 1959. The US poured millions of dollars into Central America. In the CIA manual, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare (1984), the US aim was to target “the minds of the population” to win them over. It failed. By 1985 over 60,000 Salvadorans had been killed, predominantly by the government’s death squads, in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgency.

In 2002 a US court held two retired US-based Salvadoran army generals responsible for the civil war atrocities. Two years later the Organisation of American States (OAS) human rights court voted to re-open an investigation into the 1981 massacre of hundreds of peasant families in the village of El Mozote. In 2009 former Marxist rebel, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN party, won the presidency. It was the first time in twenty years that a leftist president was elected.

In June 2019, President Nayib Bukele launched a plan to increase military and police numbers to combat the power of the gangs. The Bukele administration held secret negotiations, but they failed. In March 2022 a state of emergency was declared, following a spike in homicides. The arrests put 83 per cent of the 70,000 gang members behind bars. Domestically, the crackdown has been popular among Salvadorans weary of gang violence.

Human rights groups expressed concern that the arrests were arbitrary and had little to do with gang violence. Several US government representatives also expressed concern about the methods used. On 3rd November, 2022, Osiris Luna Meza, the Minister of Justice, announced that the government would begin destroying gravestones belonging to gang members to prevent them from becoming shrines to glorify the memory of dead criminals.

The US government has maintained a convenient collective amnesia about its actions in Central America, and the great human tragedy it helped create. No mention is made by the Salvadoran government that their problem began with US intervention in the 1980s. The history of violence and social upheaval, that the US directly caused, is excluded from discussion, instead placing all the blame on El Salvador and the Salvadoran communities.

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