But only true terror could have driven kids by the thousands to make the harrowing journey from Honduras to the United States.
“It has to be extreme fear,” says Al Valdez, formerly the supervising investigator of the gang unit at Orange County District Attorney’s Office and presently a professor at the University of California at Irvine.
The terrible irony is that the immediate sources of that terror are fellow Hondurans who once made that same journey only to be deported for having become swept up in two monstrous gangs that rose from the streets of Los Angeles.
The 18th Street Gang was named after the locus of its birth in the Ramparts section. It is also known as the MS-18 and has been nicknamed The Children’s Army because of its predilection for recruiting even kids still in elementary school.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang was formed by refugees from the civil strife in El Salvador during the 1980s and grew to include thousands members from all of Central America. It is also known as MS-13.
Initially, only those gang members who were convicted of serious crimes and served their sentences were deported. A new law in 1996 then mandated the deportation of anybody busted for a crime that carried a year in prison or more, even if the sentence was suspended. A member of the MS-18 or MS-13 needed only to be caught in a petty drug bust or a minor theft to be deported via the unmarked planes of the real-life Con Air, officially known as the Justice Prisoner Alien Transport System run by the U.S. Marshals.
Between 2001 and 2010, Con Air flew 129,760 convicted criminals back to Central America, These included 44,042 who arrived in Honduras on daily flights that were initially to one of two cities. The flights to the capital, Tegucigalpa, were then suspended and they all began landing at the country’s second-largest metropolis, San Pedro Sula.
That was increasingly convenient for the members of MS-18 and MS-13, for the gangs had brought LA thuggery to SPS, where the police had proven to be as ineffective as they were corrupt. The gangs had essentially taken over big parts of the city, warring with each other and preying on innocents with virtual impunity.
“In recent years, federal law-enforcement authorities have targeted MS-13 and MS-18 alien gang members for deportation, an action that some argue has contributed to the development and proliferation of U.S.-styled gangs in Central America,” a 2008 U.S. congressional report notes.
Valdez, the former Orange County gang unit chief, says that when visiting Central America he came upon records indicating that some form of street gangs had existed there as far back as the 1950s.
“What was new was this ’90s generation of street gangs,” he says.
He also contends that the actual number of deported MS-18 and MS-13 members is fewer than the statistics might suggest. He adds that most of them were minor players in the U.S.
But, Valdez suggests, ubiquitous American popular culture gave enormous street cred to even a low-level LA-style gangbanger. An LA shoplifter could play an SPS Scarface.
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