RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We have been hearing about tens of thousands of unaccompanied children making their way to the U.S. from Central America, to escape the violence plaguing their home countries. Much of the killing, torture and kidnapping is carried out by criminal gangs, who don't hesitate to target even little kids as victims - or forced into gang life.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Central America does have a history of civil war and weapons abound. But these gangs did not emerge from the civil wars. They originated on the streets of Los Angeles.
MONTAGNE: For that story, we reach two reporters who have long followed a journey of violence from the U.S. to El Salvador. Carlos Dada is in El Salvador. He's the founder of ElFaro.net, a new site known for its investigations into crime and corruption. Robert Lopez is an investigative reporter for Los Angeles Times, whose stories have often taken him to El Salvador. Good morning to you both.
ROBERT LOPEZ: Good morning.
CARLOS DADA: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: I am going to start with you, Robert Lopez. You have reported for decades on LA street gangs and there are two main gangs that formed here in LA that we're going to focus on. One is Mara Salvatrucha and the other is the 18th Street gang. And how did those two gangs come about?
LOPEZ: 18th Street is the largest and the oldest of the two gangs. Formed originally by Mexican-American immigrants, but ultimately took in all comers and by that I mean Central Americans, African-Americans and quickly grew. Mara Salvatrucha, in contrast, was a newer gang. It was formed by Salvadoran immigrants, who fled the country's bloody civil war.
MONTAGNE: And this is through the 1980s?
LOPEZ: Yes, the 1980s. And these immigrants settled in different parts of the country and, of course, in Los Angeles. An MS-13 formed initially as a self-defense gang, to protect itself against the larger, more established Mexican-American gangs. And they quickly gained a reputation for their willingness to use violence because, you have to remember, many of these people who started the gang had seen a brutal, brutal civil war. So it was a very violent mix - a very violent era. But now the violence has turned to Central America.
MONTAGNE: And Robert Lopez, I am looking at a piece you wrote a very long time ago - 1996 - and you called - at that point, you were talking about the 18th Street gang, you called them a children's army.
LOPEZ: Yeah, there was a lot of young recruits.
MONTAGNE: As young as 4-years-old, as you described it.
LOPEZ: Yes, there was - he was called Baby Midget. A young gang member and, you know, he was around gang members who would shoot off firearms in the LA riverbed, who would drink and swear in the city park, you know, who would go on out on so-called missions to commit violence against other rival gangs. And I do recall that very vividly.
MONTAGNE: Well, I want to actually get to how these gangs got back down to El Salvador, also to Honduras. They're in Central America. Let me turn to you, Carlos Dada. You're speaking to us, again, from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. And Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, has really taken hold there in El Salvador. The gang is running drugs. It's involved in weapons.
DADA: Yes. First of all, it's not really Mara Salvatrucha. Barrio 18, the 18th Street, also got really strong roots here. What happened was that after the civil wars ended, the United States started a program of massive deportations of criminals, gang members, back to this country. As you can imagine, coming out of long civil wars, there was no strong institutionality in this country. There were a lot of weapons, a lot of people military trained, and very few means to make a living. And there was a lot - a lot of broken families. So when these gang members, mainly from Los Angeles but also from the D.C. area, started to come back from El Salvador. They were very attractive models for these kids on the street and gang members started to develop their own clique in El Salvador.
LOPEZ: And Carlos brings up an excellent point about the gang members. These LA gang members committed crimes in California, were put in state prisons and were just deported by the thousands.
MONTAGNE: Flown down there by the United States government, right?
LOPEZ: Yes. So under federal law if someone is not a citizen and they do their time in state prisons, they have to be deported. I've talked to veteran gang members, who recall the early days when they arrived in the early 1990s and late '80s. And, you know, they were there with their baggy pants, their shaved heads, their gang tattoos. I mean, this was just an attractive thing for these Salvadoran youths. And one gang member recalled inducting several hundred new members in a matter of several days.
MONTAGNE: And Carlos Dada, that's your experience, as well?
DADA: Well, what happened was that they were just left by themselves at the airport - at the El Salvador airport - and they knew nobody here, because they had flown away when they were children to the United States. And they had broken all ties with El Salvador. So when they came back, they knew nobody. They came deported. The government would only give them enough money for transportation to the city and then they just stayed at the local park.
MONTAGNE: Well, how are these gangs and their influence over kids - how are they being fought? I mean, is a government capable of fighting them at all? Do they have that much power?
DADA: No, there have been several attempts here, every single kind of attempt you can imagine. The gang members discover they have political power. They discovered politics. And they are more sophisticated right now.
LOPEZ: Carlos brings up an excellent point about the organization of the gang. I visited one prison called Ciudad Barrios. There was 1,000 MS-13 gang members. It was like a gangster graduate school. They were organized. The leaders were all deported from Los Angeles. The prison itself was a shrine to Los Angeles. I remember a huge mural. And on that mural, there was a name of every cell or clique that had formed in Los Angeles and every gang member had a job. And there was communication. They had cell phones. They were calling out, you know, instructions to other gang members.
MONTAGNE: You know, may I ask, Carlos Dada, how do you see things going for these kids - the ones who are trying to get out and get across the border to the United States and the ones who have to stay behind?
DADA: Well, they will try again. I mean, it doesn't matter how many executive retreats President Obama issues. What you need to address is the real reasons for why they're leaving. The United States is deporting, here, criminals to a state that cannot deal with that, because we don't have the resources, the experience or the institutionality. So it doesn't matter if you deport tomorrow the 42,000 children that are now in the border. The next day, you'll have thousands again because you have not been able to solve the real problem.
MONTAGNE: Carlos Dada is the founder and editor of ElFaro.net, speaking to us from San Salvador, El Salvador. Robert Lopez is an investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner at the Los Angeles Times. Thank you both very much for joining us.
LOPEZ: My pleasure, thank you.
DADA: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.