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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January 2005, 14:26 GMT
Gang life tempts Salvador teens
By Ricardo Pollack
Director, 18 With a Bullet

Sochi, a young-looking 17-year-old, takes the rusty M16 out of a sports bag.

Member of 18 gang
Gang members tattoo 18 over their bodies to affirm a sense of identity
"She's pretty isn't she?" he asks of the assault rifle. "This is what we use to kill - this is how we control our neighbourhood".

He is a member of Eighteen - one of El Salvador's largest street gangs.

He waves the fully loaded machine gun around the room, giggling excitedly like a child, as he tries to work out where the safety catch is.

El Salvador's gangs are not home grown - in culture and style they ape the Latino street gangs of downtown Los Angeles in the US.

In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton began deporting back to El Salvador hundreds of Latino gang members who had illegally made their home in the US.

I love my gang much more than my mother
Sochi, 17-year-old gang member
The deportees brought LA gang culture with them to a country flooded with weapons from a decades-old civil war.

They recruited thousands of local teenagers to fight the turf wars they brought with them from LA.

Today, some estimates put total gang membership in El Salvador at over 40,000 out of a population of 6.6 million.

'I love my gang'

It is easy to see why boys like Sochi have joined Eighteen.

Sochi and his friend Travieso, also an 18 member
Sochi (left) joined the gang after running away from home at 13
Like many other young gang members, Sochi was abandoned by his parents.

His mother left for the US to seek work when he was six months old and he has not seen her since.

He says the relatives he was left with treated him so badly that he was forced to run away from home when he was 13.

Out on the street he joined up with the local cell of Eighteen.

"I love my gang much more than my mother," he says.

"When I needed my mother she wasn't there for me but the gang always will be. They are my family and give me the love of a family."

Strict rules

The gang also gives these teenagers the chance to smoke copious amounts of marijuana; a powerful sense of identity affirmed by the tattooing of the number 18 all over their bodies; strong friendships; and the excitement associated with the ongoing turf war against rival gang MS, the other major gang in the country.

Map of El Salvador
It imposes strict rules all gang members must live by: The taking of crack cocaine and other hard drugs is prohibited, the word of the gang leaders must by adhered to, gang members must respect one another at all times.

The breaking of such rules will lead to an 18-second beating at the very least, and execution if the crime is serious enough.

For teenagers who lack the boundaries of family, the gang gives them a set of strict codes and rules to live by.

Murder, however, is not forbidden for gang members. Instead it is a duty.

For years Eighteen has been engaged in a battle for territory with rival gang MS throughout the country.

Young gang members do not know why they are at war.

Pressed as to why he hates MS so much, Sochi says: "Because they aren't like us - they rape their own grandmothers and they're dirty."

Cycle of killing

Sochi and his friends relish the chance to kill their enemies and they never show remorse - killing members of MS is part of what it means to be a member of Eighteen.

The result is a senseless cycle of murder and revenge. If they are not arrested first, few gang members survive to the age of 30.

Gang members in Chalatenango prison. All 550 inmates in the jail are 18 members
The government has made it a crime to be a gang member
The Salvadoran government has responded by criminalising gang membership.

Although this has led to thousands of arrests, the appeal of the gangs for thousands of young Salvadorans has not lessened.

There is little evidence that the government's hardline approach has had any effect in reducing gang violence, although it seems to be popular with the electorate.

Apart from a few small social programmes run by the church, no effective social policy has been devised to deal with the problem.

Until boys like Sochi can be presented with an alternative, the gang will continue to be the centre of his life.

Asked how he sees his future, Sochi replies: "Maybe I'll live till I'm 37, or if God wants, even older. Then I can be an old man and still in the gang."

Combating El Salvador's gangs
20 Mar 04 |  Americas
Timeline: El Salvador
09 May 03 |  Country profiles
Country profile: El Salvador
23 May 03 |  Country profiles

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