Copyright 2004 Donna DeCesare
The most comprehensive coverage of Central America in years.
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Police on patrol
Members of the national police force in El Salvador
David Eurgenia, a Mara Salvatrucha member, in an El Salvador prison. "Just because we have tattoos, we get arrested... Whether we committed a crime or not, we're imprisoned."

Gang member Carlos Tivari "El Unico" is an inmate at El Salvador's Quezaltepeque prison. "La Mara Salvatrucha, la M.S., es mi barrio, man, por vida," he says.

Mara Salvatrucha member at the Quezaltepeque prison.

Inmates in Quezaltepeque prison

Mara Salvatrucha members crowd the Quezaltepeque prison in El Salvador.
Credit: Mandalit del Barco, NPR

Segment 9:
Los homies
Senior Reporter: Mandalit del Barco
Associates: Ruxandra Guidi, Sarah Bush

A decade after Central America's civil wars ended, authorities are now fighting a new enemy: street gangs. The U.S. routinely deports Latino gang members back to Central America. Authorities in El Salvador and Honduras have launched an all-out war, cracking down hard on the gangs. Many young people have been caught up in mass police sweeps, and vigilante groups have been targeting those associated with gangs. NPR reporter Mandalit del Barco looks at the links between la vida loca in California and in Central America.

Gang violence in Central America is fed by many factors, including: family dislocation caused by war with the inevitable consequence of internal displacement and a huge population of refugees that left their countries never to return; a harsh economic environment with persistent unemployment that has caused millions of people to leave their countries, heading north in search of work and a paycheck to help their families survive back home; and, as fuel for the fire, new U.S. immigration policies that have brought about the deportation from the U.S. of hundreds of thousands of "criminal aliens" who have overwhelmed the legal systems of Central American and other impoverished countries. In many cases, the deportees came to the U.S. with their families when they were babies or young children and know nothing of the countries from which they came. They are sent back to an experience of profound alienation, isolation, and loneliness, often turning to gangs for protection or even a sense of family. (From a report by the Interfaith Task Force on Central America.)

For more information about the issues raised in the segment Los Homies: Youth and the Gang Phenomenon, see the following books and articles.
(Note: this is not intended as a complete list. Check back for more recommendations and an opportunity to make your own recommendations soon.)

Hayden, Tom, Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence

Rodriguez, Luis, Always Running

Sanchez, Reymundo, My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King

Murray, Yxta Maya, Locas

Vigil, James Diego, Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California

Fremon, Celeste, Father Greg and the Homeboys: The Extraordinary Journey of Father Boyle and His Work with the Latino Gangs of East L.A.

Homies Unidos web page with links to articles

"Gang Wars and the War on Gangs" by Diego Cavallo, Child and Youth Care International

Child and Youth Care International

Mennonite Central Committee: Gangs in Central America

"Central American's Latest War - Gang Violence" by Yazmin Ross, World Press Review, May, 1993

"Central America Takes Harder Line Against Gangs" , Christian Science Monitor

"The Fatal Compulsion to Belong" by W. E. Gutman, The Panama News, May 9-22, 2004

"Grim News in Central America: Wave of Gang Violence Grows" by Kari Lydersen,, January 29, 2004

"A History of California's Hispanic Gangs" by Al Valdez, National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations

"Combating El Salvadorĺ─˘s Gangs" by Claire Marshall, BBC News

"Crackdown on Gangs Brings Mexico Violence" by Mark Stevenson,

"Declaring War on Gangs" by Edgardo Ayala, Inside Costa Rica, Oct. 14, 2003

Produced by GraciasVida Media Center, the independent journalism resource for Latin America.

For more information, contact:
Producer Maria Martin email:
or telephone: 415.670.9717

Funded by
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting
and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

© Maria Martin

Photo at top left © Donna DeCesare