‘I’ve Lost Everything to the Beast’: Reviewing 4 Books on MS-13Historians in the News
tags: crime, immigration, Los Angeles, Central America, El Salvador, gangs, MS-13
Rachel Nolan teaches Latin American history at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.
MS-13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang
by Steven Dudley
Hanover Square, 339 pp., $28.99
Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas
by Roberto Lovato
Harper, 325 pp., $26.99; $17.99 (paper; to be published in September)
The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman
by Óscar Martínez and Juan José Martínez, translated from the Spanish by John B. Washington and Daniela Ugaz
Verso, 305 pp., $26.95
State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence
by William Wheeler
Columbia Global Reports, 139 pp., $15.99 (paper)
Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, is a Salvadoran street gang, but it was born in the US about forty years ago. Salvadorans had been coming to California since the early 1900s, a trickle of job-seekers from a tiny country that could fit into the state twenty times over. In 1979 the trickle turned into a wave of families fleeing for their lives; in Pico-Union, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, four Salvadoran families would pack into an apartment that had previously been occupied by a single white family. The Salvadorans were escaping one of the bloodiest wars of the century in the Western Hemisphere, but they found a different kind of violence in the United States.
Before Donald Trump loudly decried the menace of MS-13—and, in his racist hallucinations, equated all Central Americans with the gang—1979 was the last time Salvadorans featured prominently in US headlines. That summer, socialist guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua brought down the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the first major victory for the left in Latin America since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and many in the US feared El Salvador might be next. With an economy built on exporting coffee, El Salvador was said to be ruled by fourteen families who had seized control of its banks and sugar and coffee industries in the late nineteenth century and never let go. Forty percent of the country’s farmland belonged to less than 2 percent of the population.
After a stolen election in 1972 and an attempt at modest agrarian reform blocked by the fourteen families, socialist and Communist guerrilla groups in El Salvador began to cobble together unlikely alliances: university students, union members, dispossessed farmers, and believers adhering to a left-wing strain of Catholicism: Liberation Theology. Many protested peacefully, while some joined a new leftist guerrilla faction, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The military initially repressed the protests, and in 1979, with the support of the oligarchy, it staged a coup d’état. What followed is usually called a civil war, but it was more like a rampage of cold war state terror. Guns flowed in from Cuba and Nicaragua, and the US offered full political and financial support to the Salvadoran military dictatorship.
El Salvador did not become another Vietnam; rather than send troops, the US trained torturers there and dispensed money—up to $2 million a day. The report from the postwar truth commission backed by the UN shows the toll: from 1979 to 1992, 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 forcibly disappeared. The Salvadoran Army and security forces were responsible for 85 percent of this violence. And, crucial to the birth of MS-13, the war displaced one million Salvadorans, half of whom fled to the US. According to the Pew Research Center, El Salvador is the fourth most common origin of Latinos in the US, after Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
The families who made it to Pico-Union throughout the 1980s—ex-military, ex-guerrilla, and those who had simply tried to save their own lives—were marked by the violence. As the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez and the anthropologist Juan José Martínez, who are brothers, write in The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman, many of the Salvadoran teenagers who showed up in LA already knew war, though not through a conscription letter arriving on their eighteenth birthday:
In El Salvador it was military trucks pulling into poor barrios where packs of soldiers with lassos trapped kids and teenagers. The soldiers then shaved the rookies’ heads, gave them a little training, and sent them to kill and die in the mountains.
A member of Barrio 18—the other gang that now terrorizes Central America, but with less name recognition—told the Martínez brothers that he came to California in the 1980s after battling guerrilla fighters in the Salvadoran mountains. “We fled the war,” he said. “We didn’t want more war. But over there we found another bunch of problems.”
These problems began in the American schoolyard. In parts of South and East LA, high schools were dominated by gangs, organizations that were unfamiliar to most of the new arrivals but a staple of US urban life. By the late 1970s LA was known as the gang capital of the country. Gangs bled over from streets into schools, breaking down along racial lines. (LA was majority white, almost 20 percent Latino, almost 8 percent Black, and just over 5 percent Asian.) Mexican and Chicano gangs battled Black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods and picked fights with the Central American kids, who were conspicuous; for example, they used vos instead of tú for “you.”
Salvadorans formed their own gang, at first for protection and a sense of belonging. Most couldn’t work legally—97 percent of Salvadorans’ asylum claims were rejected, since they were fleeing an anti-Communist ally of the US. (By contrast, Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime were given legal status.)
They called themselves Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. “Mara” is Salvadoran slang for a group of friends, taken from the Spanish-language title of The Naked Jungle, a 1954 Charlton Heston movie that was a hit there under the name Cuando ruge la marabunta (When the Killer Ants Roar). The origin of “Salvatrucha” is harder to pin down. “Salva” stands for El Salvador, but “trucha,” which means “trout” in Spanish, also roughly means “watch out” (póngase trucha) in Caló, a Mexican-American slang that new arrivals to California learned along with English. The name of the gang (MS for short) roughly translates to “watch out for my Salvadoran buddies,” and it only makes sense given its birth in the US.
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