Academic researcher Al Valdez was in El Salvador’s capital city two years ago watching bewildered deportees from America step onto the tarmac. The plane was full of undocumented immigrants sent back because of their criminal records, he said, including some gang members. A nun gave each one a banana or an aspirin, and told them they were free to leave.
There was no one offering to help rehabilitate them into Salvadoran society.
“I was disturbed. They were simply repatriated back into their country,” said Valdez, the author of books on Southern California gangs and a former supervisor with the Orange County District Attorney’s gang unit.
The lack of oversight has allowed gang members to assert control in El Salvador and neighboring countries, where tens of thousands — including unaccompanied children — have made dangerous journeys to the U.S. border in recent months. In addition, Valdez said, the United States’ own policy has been an unintended driver of the pile-up on America’s doorstep.
U.S. immigration policy was tightened in 1996, resulting in more undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes being deported to their home countries. That included expelling criminals familiar with gang culture in Los Angeles and other cities to their native El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — now among the most dangerous countries in the world.
“This American style of gangsterism was imported like a catalyst” and became mixed with the local gangs into a violent and murderous mash-up, Valdez said. “It took off like a wildfire, like a virus out of control.”
The most high-profile are rivals MS-13, formally known as “Mara Salvatrucha,” and the 18th Street gang, or M-18, both of which have roots in the U.S. It was in Los Angeles where Mexican immigrants formed the 18th Street gang, and then began recruiting Central American immigrants in the 1980s. MS-13 was made up of mostly Salvadoran immigrants who were trying to protect themselves from other gangs, Valdez said.
They effectively assimilated into the American gang lifestyle, getting tattoos, wearing certain clothes and learning how to recruit. But when the U.S. decided to clamp down on undocumented immigrants with rap sheets, they were sent back to Central America armed with what they learned in the U.S., said Magdaleno Rose-Avila, a Seattle immigration activist who has studied gangs in El Salvador.
“When I went there [in 1996], I met these Salvadorans who had lived in L.A.,” Rose-Avila said. “I found that these gang members spoke Spanglish, they learned [American] football and they knew the best place to grab a hamburger back in Los Angeles.”
In essence, these reintegrated immigrants were still tethered to their adopted homeland.
“They were more gringo than Salvadoran,” Rose-Avila added.
There have been reports of gang members in Central America threatening children, even killing them, when they refuse to join their ranks as foot soldiers. Kidnappings, stabbings and attacks on public transportation by gang members routinely grab local headlines.
In May, Salvadoran gang members boarded a commuter bus near San Salvador disguised as road maintenance workers, witnesses said. They opened fire on the passengers, killing six of them. That same day, police came across a clandestine grave filled with the bodies of six boat maintenance workers believed to have been murdered by MS-13 members, according to The Associated Press.
That month, El Salvador saw murders double from a year earlier, to more than 350.
Valdez, who teaches gang history at the University of California, Irvine, recalled how one student from Guatemala had interviewed an uncle for a class report. His family member described the threats and feeling of anxiety living in a place where every venture outside could be his last.
“They live in fear. That’s the everyday, common citizen feeling that way,” Valdez said. “That haunted me.”
The lack of legitimate economic opportunities in the region and an average minimum wage of just $150 to $300 per month are keeping the gang lifestyle alive, said Fulbright Scholar Elizabeth Kennedy.
“Some of the jobs have disappeared because of free-trade agreements, and now you have even less work with lower wages,” Kennedy said in a phone interview from El Salvador, where she is researching immigrant children who have been sent back from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rose-Avila said even former gang members can still have trouble reintegrating into society because of their tattoos and past affiliations.
He helped gang members in El Salvador looking to rehabilitate their lives form a group called Homies Unidos, which has a chapter in Los Angeles. American lawmakers at odds with the Obama administration on immigration reform can no longer drag their feet, Rose-Avila added.
President Barack Obama met with the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras on Friday to discuss the border crisis and acknowledged that they have a shared responsibility to fix the problem. He suggested the possibility for a limited refugee program although that wouldn't be enough to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants from Central America.
“We created the economic and political conditions there,” Rose-Avila said. “All these kids that came back and are disrupting the communities with gangs — we created that.”