Tracing the roots of Salvadoran street gang MS-13

World Today

Dozens of imprisoned Salvadoran gang members are crammed into a single jail cell 4 meters wide and 4 meters deep. They’re from the Mara Salvatruchas or, MS-13, and Barrio 18, two rival gangs which government security forces here say are responsible for a new wave of murders across El Salvador.

U.S. President Donald Trump intensified his country’s crackdown on MS-13, and said the violence MS-13 produces justifies the building of a wall on the U.S./Mexico border.

CGTN’s Franc Contreras explains the history of the gang.

To understand the history of the MS-13, we must return to El Salvador’s civil war in in the 1980s. Left-wing rebels battled a U.S.-backed right-wing government blamed for widespread human rights abuses.

Salvadorans fled the violence and migrated to the United States, many settling in Los Angeles. There, they confronted attacks from street gangs. That’s when MS-13 was born.

Thirty four-year-old Transito Castro is a former MS-13 gang member, who has been in jail for 10 years, after he was found guilty for allegedly planning a murder. He faces 20 more years behind bars and says he’s innocent.

“The gang decided to organize itself to protect other Salvadorans who lived surrounded by people of other cultures,” Castro said. “It was not created to carry out kidnappings or extortions, but later its ambition for money ruined that.”

Salvadoran officials calculate that the Mara Salvatrucha have 60,000 members in El Salvador, and more than 10,000 members in the U.S.

Another jailed former gang member, José Walter López, said the MS-13 often turns against its own members.

“It’s not like it used to be. Now they mess with your family, wife, kids, mother and it is not supposed to be like that,” Lopez said. “If I got problems with you, I will deal with you, not with your family, and that’s the reason they now are out of control.”

For decades, life in El Salvador has been characterized by violence. This monument was created in an effort to reconcile pain people have suffered since this Central American nation’s bloody civil war ended in the early 1990s.

But just as El Salvador achieved this reconciliation and is making its way down the road toward peace, it now confronts a new challenge: gang violence.

Antonio Rodriguez is a Catholic priest whose NGO teaches non-violence in San Salvador.

“During the years of the armed conflict, the country was unable to have a national policy that gave attention to migrants deported in the 1990s,” Rodriguez said. “And the deportees from those years are now here with this gang culture.”

Many of them end up in prisons, like this one near Santa Ana, El Salvador, which holds 5,000 men, including many former MS-13 members. They say many other gang members are still on the streets of this country and the United States.