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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.

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