Mass deportation threatens to repeat history of gang violence

The U.S. government’s mass deportation of Central American youth could be fueling the same gangs that gave rise to the migrant exodus in the first place.

The Obama administration deports an average of 1,100 people per day. Despite activists’ repeated calls deportation relief, the president says he won’t take any executive action on the matter until after the midterm elections.

That’s bad news for the more than 50,000 unaccompanied Central American children who have been detained by U.S. Border agents for illegally entering the country this year. Many of those children are fleeing violence in Honduras and El Salvador, and sending them home could put them right back in the grips of the powerful gangs whose origins are tied to previous waves of deported Central Americans.

The two major gangs terrorizing Central America’s northern triangle were born in the United States in the 1980s and 90s, and proliferated internationally when the U.S. government deported the problem.

It started when thousands of refugees fled El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s and migrated to the greater Los Angeles area. They weren’t welcomed in city’s Pico Union area, controlled by a Mexican gang called “18th street,” so they formed their own gang, known as “The Mara Salvatrucha,” or MS13, and fought for turf. Some MS gang members were ex-guerrillas who were accustomed to extreme violence.

The ensuing turf wars between the 18th street and MS13 were among the most intense gang rivalries in the history of Los Angeles County, according to former Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Lopez, who covered the gang wars.

The U.S. government’s anti-gang strategy focused on deportation, which only foisted the problem on weaker Central American governments that were ill-prepared to deal with the influx of hardened criminals. The gangs thrived, developing into brutal, transnational and well-organized networks with a deep reach into state institutions and the jail system.

The Maras have since allied themselves with Mexico’s warring drug cartels, and have made inroads all across the United States, especially in Washington and Virginia.

U.S. policy of mass deportation created “super gangs” that used deportations as a competitive advantage to spread their influence throughout the region — a situation that gave rise to the current exodus of migrant youths fleeing their homelands.

With this new influx of Central American children coming into cities like Los Angeles, traumatized by gang violence, it’s not a stretch to see how history could repeat itself. Our lawmakers must provide these new immigrants with sufficient support and understanding to help them become productive members of society, rather than returning them home into the maw of gang violence.

“The same policies that have been implemented prior to the wars in Central America are the same policies that are being implemented right now,” said Alex Sanchez, a former member of MS13 who now runs Homies Unidos in LA. “…if we are not prepared to give these children what they need as refugees, then they are going to start looking for answers in the streets.”

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