- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

SAN SALVADOR With a tattoo and baggy jeans bought with stolen necklaces, Malvin Antario looks like a gang leader from Los Angeles. A handy supply of crack cocaine completes the image.
But the slum called Soyapango where he lives is a big step down from even the worst L.A. housing projects. The corrugated iron shacks have no running water. There are flies and rats. Sewage runs through the streets.
"I wanted to be able to get money for drugs and clothes. I wanted to fit in, I wanted something to do, so I joined the 18th Street," said Mr. Antario.
The 18th Street is one of several gangs in El Salvador with roots in Los Angeles, introduced when the United States started deporting immigrants with U.S. criminal records after El Salvador's 12-year civil war ended in 1992.
In the last fiscal year, the United States deported 62,359 criminals, up from 37,000 three years ago. The deportations are helping to lower crime rates, open up prison space and save taxpayers money in the United States, but they are leading to the proliferation of U.S. gang habits in El Salvador and other countries in Central America.
Government officials complain they are ill-equipped to deal with the flow of violent, experienced criminals.
"Many violent offenses, like murder and kidnapping, are committed by young people who have been in the United States and are sent back here with no warning. As these deportations increase, so do crime rates," said Milagro Hernandez, of El Salvador's justice department.
William Huezo, a Los Angeles deportee now living in San Salvador, explained why local youths are drawn into the gangs.
"Kids see deported gang members from L.A. who have nice clothes, who do things for money, like sell drugs and do tattoos, and they want to be like them. They don't want to be like their dad, working in the fields, or their mother, washing clothes," he said.
The two main gangs in El Salvador are the 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, both exported from Los Angeles. The cities and even rural areas have been divided between these well-armed rival factions, who mark their territories with graffiti. As a result of their activity, crime has soared.
Gang members are thought to be responsible for 10 percent of El Salvador's staggering annual murder rate of 120 killings per 100,000 people, compared with just eight per 100,000 in the United States.
The young hoodlums kill not only each other, but also passers-by caught in the cross fire. They rob backpackers, kidnap people, steal cars, deal drugs and extort money from businesses.
"More than 300 deported El Salvadorians arrive in the country from the U.S. every month. These are people who have not just been in jail but have often committed crimes after they have got out of jail. They are having a huge impact on the country," said Eduardo Alfonso Linares, head of San Salvador's metropolitan police.
Psychologists say the civil war, which took the lives of more than 75,000 people, is another factor in the rise in gang membership. Many family units were destroyed, leaving children in the care of people to whom they are only loosely related. Often these relatives cannot afford to send the children to school.
"The war has made people much more tolerant of violence. People tend to solve everyday disputes with violence. This has been passed down to the next generation," said Marcela Smutt, a consultant on gangs for a U.N. research project.
El Salvador's Congress is debating whether to try children as young as 14 in adult courts and has agreed to fund more jails for juveniles. However, organizations working with children say these are not the right answers.
"Gangs in big numbers are an expression of social exclusion. But what is the government doing? They're constructing more jails instead of providing schools and asking for more family responsibility," said Karla Hanania de Varela, child rights officer at UNICEF.

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