Do you want to have a disturbing experience? Then read the book "This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang" by Samuel Logan (Hyperion, 2009). The word "mara" is Spanish for "gang," and the word Salvatrucha in El Salvador is slang for "street smart."
This juvenile gang was formed in 1980s Los Angeles by immigrants who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. But since many of the founders were former guerrilla fighters, they brought with them a cavalier attitude toward life and death. This in turn facilitated their use of extreme violence that even shocked other gangs in the area. But it also enabled MS-13 eventually to take control of large amounts of gang territory.
By 1996, the U.S. government adopted a policy of deporting MS-13 members back to their countries of origin, in many cases after serving jail or prison sentences here. Unfortunately in many ways that strategy backfired, because it resulted in the deportees using their knowledge, experiences and prison connections to form similar MS-13 gangs around the world.
Today there are estimated to be somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 members of MS-13. They range all over our country from Alaska to New York, with strongholds in the D.C. area, Nashville, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Charlotte, New Orleans and Knoxville, in addition to Los Angeles. They are also found in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Spain. All of this makes MS-13 almost as organized and all-pervasive as the Mafia.
The initiation process conveys the depths to which this gang has descended. Males mostly go through the initiation process of receiving the brutality of a full-on assault with unrestrained punches and kicks from the gang members for 13 seconds. The females, who make up about 1% of the membership, can either be initiated in the same way as the males, or they can be "sexed-in," which means that the girl is repeatedly raped by all of the males present until the males are satisfied. But this process also gives those young women almost sub-human status in the eyes of the other members.
The MS-13 makes its money the same way most other criminal gangs do, which is by being involved in extortion and dealing in human, arms and drug trafficking. But due to their reputation for gruesome violence, MS-13 members are also often hired by other gangs as contract killers.
The story of the book centers on a personable and bright young lady named Brenda Paz, who was sent by her parents from Honduras to live with her uncle in Texas. But since this uncle had little time or inclination to treat this "additional mouth to feed" with any affection or caring, she soon sought her "family support" elsewhere, which happened to be with the MS-13 gang.
The book told us that Paz was present when numbers of other crimes were committed, including a time when her boyfriend first beat severely and then killed a casual friend of hers. Eventually Paz was arrested by the FBI and questioned about the murder, and after a while she decided to become a government informant against the gang.
Unfortunately, it was obvious to everyone but Paz that being an informant was an ultra hazardous thing to do. So even though she was thoroughly warned, given a new identity and placed in safe quarters in a different state, she went back to her "friends" in the gang because of boredom and loneliness. But once the gang learned of her cooperation with the government, they lured her out to a lonely place, and brutally knifed her to death, notwithstanding the fact that she was pregnant.
Why am I using this column to discuss things like this with you? Because gangs like this can only thrive, or even exist, by default, which is to say that they fill the void when we don't show enough caring to provide positive role models for all of our children. The truth is that someone will always mentor our children, and if it is not people like parents, basketball coaches, boys and girls club leaders, or school teachers, children will be mentored by people like Charles Manson or gangs like MS-13. These malignant people are always out there recruiting, and when they get hold of children it doesn't take long to get them into a "Lord of the Flies" mentality, which can quickly result in the brutalities and initiation rites used by MS-13.
With this understanding, when I see in the news that people have rallied to raise enough money to preserve the "Hollywood" sign, but positive programs for youth mentoring and employment like Homeboy Industries instituted in gang territories in Los Angeles by Father Gregory Boyle die for lack of funding, I really get frustrated.
So we should address and be pro-active with these problems right now, because ignoring them will result in them becoming more severe. Thus if you want seriously to reduce human tragedies in our communities, as well as crimes and the costs of putting so many people in prison, help to support programs that provide positive mentoring to all of our children. You know where they are, and most of them desperately need our help.
Do you remember the comments printed a few weeks ago in this column from my friend Dr. Earl Fuller about the young men in Pelican Bay State Prison? They told him that they expected to be dead by the age of 25, so under those circumstances it really didn't matter what violence they inflicted upon others, or what violence was inflicted upon them. Why? Because they would be dead soon anyway. Is this the way we want our communities to be? I know that we can do better than that!
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "Wearing the Robe: the Art and Responsibility of Judging in Today's Courts" (Square One Publishers, 2010), Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, A Voter's Handbook, Effective Solutions To America's Problems and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.judgejimgray.com. Judge Jim Gray is also currently offering his 25 years of experience on the bench to ADR Services in Orange County for Arbitration and Mediation services.