The expansion of the youth gangs known as Maras in the US, Mexico and Central America in recent years provides an interesting example not only of the increasing relevance of ‘translocality’ in gang formation, but also how counter–productive the misguided (transnational) institutional interventions can be. What makes the case particularly interesting is the extent to which transnational networks and flows have so profoundly transformed and scaled–up what started as a local, Los Angeles phenomenon. Across the region, maras have become a spectacular symbol of deviance, defiance and delinquency, yet as the gangs encounter local conditions in Central America, they transform according to local environments. Despite their transnational origins, therefore, I would argue that the gangs remain fundamentally local institutions, although strongly influenced by external/global processes (see also Cruz, 2010; Santamaría, 2007).
The origins of the two gangs making up what are commonly referred to as maras can be traced to gang formation in Los Angeles. First to emerge was the 18th Street Gang, or Barrio 18, which was originally formed mainly of Mexican immigrants, but then became relatively heterogeneous, and later the mara Salvatrucha (or MS13), which was formed mainly of Salvadoran migrants in order to provide some resistance to the Barrio 18and other local gangs. Although these national affiliations are strong, both gangs in Los Angeles later contained a significant number of Latino youth from other countries, with their affiliation based on territory, a notional Latino identity, but above all attachment to the gang itself. In the words of a gang member from Honduras:
It doesn’t matter where we’re from. You could be from here [Honduras], from any Department, or from El Salvador, Guatemala, or from the US. As long as you’re a Salvatrucha, you’re one more member of the family (Savenije, 2004a:2).
While the basic structure and norms of these gangs were born according to local conditions in Los Angeles, international migration flows have caused them to expand into (arguably) transnational organizations, yet operating in a translocal way. In other words, international migration flows have meant that cultural practices and values originally attached to socio–spatial conflicts in the United States have been transmitted to, andtransformed within local contexts in many cities in Central America.
Although maras were reported in Central America during the 1980s (see AVANCSO, 1996), and there have always been bi–directional flows of migrants, legal and illegal, between the US and Central America, it was the vast upsurge in deportations and repatriations during the 1990s which is largely thought to have allowed the phenomenon of the maras to spread to such an extent in Central America (see Cruz, 2010 for a detailed account, also Liebel, 2004; Rodgers et al., 2008; Santamaría, 2007). First, the end of decades of civil war in much of Central America in the 1990s meant that there were mass–repatriations of Central American citizens who had fled the conflict during previous decades. Second, concerns among US authorities that Latino gangs were rapidly growing in size and influence led to mass deportations of gang members from 1992 (Savenije, 2004a), further to which changes in immigration laws in 1996 meant that non–citizens, and in some cases foreign–born citizens, who were sentenced to one of more years in prison (among them many gang members) could be repatriated to their country of origin. As a result of these stricter laws relating to the repatriation of felons and illegal immigrants, between 1998 and 2005 the US deported nearly 46 000 convicts to Central America, in addition to 160 000 illegal immigrants. Three countries, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, received more than 90 percent of the deportations from the US, many of whom were gang members (Rodgerset al., 2008). So these young people, many leaving behind entire families in the US, and with no memory of their ‘home country’, were left to effectively fend for themselves (Zilberg, 2004). Perhaps unsurprisingly, with few or no apparent alternatives, for many continuing gang life was a quite logical decision.
On arrival, many such deportees established clikas which either supplanted existing gangs (pandillas) or absorbed them (Rodgers et al., 2008). As Cruz (2010: 388) finds, ‘the maras did not expand because of a premeditated and centralized process, but through a social imitation process based on migration and networking’. Migration is, after all, as much a flow of ideas as it is a flow of people. It is now overwhelmingly the case in cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, that the clikas of the mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 are the dominant local gangs, even in some cases where more established gangs still remain. It is important to note, therefore, that deportations had a massive effect not so much on the numbers of young people involved in street gangs per se, but rather on the practices and organization of gangs. Conditions in urban Central America were such that the physical dissemination of ‘American’ gang structures precipitated important changes in the local (Central American) youth gang landscape. It has been argued in terms of the impact of migration on local gang structures in the US, that gang members can contribute to proliferation ‘if they introduce new and exciting cultural distinctions from those existing gangs’, whereby they act as ‘cultural carriers of the folkways, mythologies and other trappings of more sophisticated urban gangs’ (Maxson, 1998:3).
Certainly, the ‘imaginary’ of the mara is as (if not more) powerful as their physical presence, both as an appealing identity for members, imitators, and sympathizers, as well as a generator of fear and suspicion among the general population. Thus, the shared cultural symbolism of the maras, their practices and rituals (although varied) unite them under a shared identity that may be based more on sense of ‘imagined’ community, than on real physical connections through space. Indeed, Santamaría (2007) finds that the transnational character of maras in the region is limited to the cultural and symbolic influences shaping their identity and behavior, rather than any more formally organized transnational structures. However, it is certainly the case that these cultural norms and practices morph according to the context in which they are appropriated, thus forming the basis for ‘glocal’ gang structures. Thus, as micro– and macro–level conditions change over time, so do the structures and functions of gangs. Gangs are constantly in process, evolving, transforming, displacing, being displaced. So how do these new structures affect local geographies? How is the ‘gang’ spatially constituted?
Author: Alisa Winton