Gang Leader Shot to Death on Road to Reform Ernesto Miranda, aka "Smokey," was a co-founder of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha gang in Los Angeles. At 38, he was studying law and working to keep kids out of gangs. All that ended Saturday night, when he was shot to death, apparently in retaliation for his anti-gang efforts.
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Gang Leader Shot to Death on Road to Reform

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Gang Leader Shot to Death on Road to Reform

Gang Leader Shot to Death on Road to Reform

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A man who co-founded one of this country's deadliest street gangs has been gunned down in his home in El Salvador. Ernesto Miranda was 38. years ago he helped Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious gang born in Los Angeles that's now spread around the world.

But lately even police have called Miranda a peacemaker, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: On the streets of L.A. and his native El Salvador, Ernesto Miranda was known as Smokey. We met him just over a year ago in a village outside San Salvador. Miranda claimed to be a changed man, looking back at his days as one of the original members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, the MS-13.

ERNESTO MIRANDA: (Speaking foreign language)

DEL BARCO: Miranda was back in El Salvador after having been deported from Los Angeles because of his gang activities. He talked about having grown up in this country's bloody civil war in the 1980s. Miranda says he was just 14 when he joined the army to fight for a cause he really didn't understand.

MIRANDA: (Through translator) In this country, we were taught to kill our own people no matter if they were from your own blood. If your father was the enemy, you had to kill him. So the training we got during the war in our country served to make us one of the most violent gangs in the United States.

DEL BARCO: Miranda fled to Los Angeles hoping to escape the violence, but he found plenty more in the streets of L.A.'s Pico Union neighborhood. That's where he banded with other young Salvadoran immigrants and started the MS-13.

SUSAN CRUZ: I remember Smokey. I met him back in 1991. And he was this, you know, hardcore, you know, down for the neighborhood and this is where I'm going to die.

DEL BARCO: Susan Cruz works with gang members and undocumented youth in Los Angeles.

CRUZ: I remember, you know, when his first daughter was born. And, you know, he found God and all that and he changed. And all of us were like, wow, you know. Mr. I'm Never Gonna Leave the Gang and here you are, you know, turning your life around. And he went through a lot of stuff.

DEL BARCO: Cruz and other friends say Smokey was looking for redemption for his many past sins. That included exporting the gang lifestyle back home to El Salvador after he was forced to leave Los Angeles. In his new barrio, Miranda and the other deported gang members told tales of gang life in L.A and soon young Salvadorans copied their hand signals, the slang and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPANISH RAP MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: When we met him last year, Miranda was studying law at that national university, working with former gang members and lobbying federal judges in El Salvador.

ROSIA SANTA CRUZ: He was leading a great effort down there to bring human rights into the prisons. And it's difficult work. Not everyone can go and do that.

DEL BARCO: Rosia Santa Cruz works with Homies Unidos, a bi-national gang intervention organization.

SANTA CRUZ: It's so sad to see another peacemaker has been killed.

DEL BARCO: Salvadoran police captain Nery Garcia says Miranda's murder is still under investigation. But this much is known, at 1:30 in the morning Sunday, he says, Miranda was shot 10 times while standing in the doorway of his house, hours after turning down an invitation to celebrate the prison release of an MS member.

NERY GARCIA: (Speaking foreign language)

DEL BARCO: Garcia says compared to the life he once led, Miranda was rehabilitated. But Garcia says he could never quite escape his past ties, though he was the only ex-gang banger in the area of working to prevent further violence.

Miranda's family held a funeral yesterday and later this week his L.A. friends plan to memorialize him.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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