L.A. Mayor Seeks Gang Solutions in El Salvador

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is on a special trade mission in El Salvador in a bid to end gang violence.

Some of the most dangerous gangs in Los Angeles have strong ties with the Central American country. The Los Angeles area is home to as many as a million Salvadoran immigrants.

One of the greatest commonalities between the two areas is gang violence, particularly the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gangs that were born on the streets of Los Angeles.

"These gangs are transnational, and we've gotta work across borders smart, in a multi-pronged way: suppression, prevention and intervention," he said.

The Republic of El Salvador is about the size of Massachusetts, and its population is nearly 7 million.

During a meeting with President Elias Antonio Saca of El Salvador, Villaraigosa signed a formal agreement with the chief of the National Civilian Police force to stem a wave of so-called cross-border gang members: those who immigrate to the United States and those who get deported back to El Salvador.

As part of the plan, officers from the Los Angeles Police Department's gang unit will share training, tactics and intelligence with the Salvadoran force.

FBI agent Robert Loosle works with the Los Angeles Police Department and advised the Salvadoran police in the 1990s. He traveled with Villaraigosa's delegation to help develop solutions to gang violence.

"We have a chance to ... probably keep better track of a lot of these individuals who are committing crimes in the U.S., or committing crimes in El Salvador and going to the U.S., or just using the revolving door," Loosle said.

Graffiti tags of the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and the 18th Street gang are ubiquitous in San Salvador.

The National Civilian Police, which has about 16,000 officers, estimates that more than 12,000 gang members in the country are responsible for 40 percent of all homicides. The prisons are overcrowded with tattooed gang members — many of them deported felons from Los Angeles.

"They send the corrupt gang members here," said Mayra Mejia, who sells pirated DVDs from her stand at an outdoor market downtown.

Like many, she blames the United States for exporting the problem and said what's needed is real opportunities. Salvadorans say they're fed up with the robberies, extortion, assaults and threats.

Even the police are afraid of the armed gang members, university student Donald Escamilla said.

Until now, the approach of the National Civilian Police has been what Saca calls the "mano dura" — the hard hand, or strong arm.

"It's basically repression," Saca said.

But activists and gang interventionists have denounced the country's zero-tolerance tactic, saying it has resulted in wholesale roundups and prison terms without due process.

Julio Canas is a former member of Los Angeles' Mara Salvatrucha. He was deported to El Salvador and now works to keep kids away from trouble.

"The only thing the government of El Salvador has is oppression. They kill kids in the streets; they kill kids in the prison. Mano dura don't work," Canas said.

Saca said El Salvador will take a cue from Los Angeles and focus not only on police suppression but also on preventing young people from joining gangs.

But even as Villaraigosa agreed to share tactics, he had to order his own police chief to stay home in the wake of charges that the Los Angeles Police Department used excessive force to clear the crowd at an immigrant rally Tuesday evening

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