L.A. Mayor Seeks Gang Solutions in El Salvador Concerns about gang culture prompt Antonio Villaraigosa to visit San Salvador. Both cities must deal with gangs that have strong ties in both nations. In San Salvador, felons deported from the U.S. have taken L.A.'s gang culture back to the homeland.

L.A. Mayor Seeks Gang Solutions in El Salvador

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NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports from the capital, San Salvador.


MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Salvadoran high school musicians and baton twirlers greeted L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he arrived at city hall in San Salvador. As Villaraigosa was given the key to L.A.'s sister city, he noted that Los Angeles is home to as many as a million Salvadorian immigrants. The two cities also share a common problem, gang violence, in particular, the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gangs, which were born in the streets of L.A.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: These gangs are transnational, and we've got to work across borders, smart, in a multi-pronged way - suppression, prevention and intervention.

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa also visited El Salvador's White House to meet the president who is his tocayo - they share the same name - Antonio Saca.

ANTONIO SACA: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: FBI agent Robert Loosle works with the LAPD and advises Salvadorian police in the 1990s. He's traveling with Villaraigosa's delegation.

ROBERT LOOSLE: We have a chance to work with the Salvadorans and share information we have and probably keep better track of a lot of these individuals who are committing crimes in the U.S., coming to El Salvador, or committing crimes in El Salvador and then going to the U.S., or just using the revolving door.

DEL BARCO: Graffiti tags of the Mara Salvatrucha, the MS-13, and the 18th Street Gang are everywhere in San Salvador. The national police estimates there are more than 12,000 gang members in the country responsible for 40 percent of all homicides. The prisons are overcrowded with tattooed gang members, many of them deported felons from Los Angeles.

MITA MEJIA: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: They send corrupt gang members here, says Mita Mejia(ph), who sells pirated DVDs from her stand at an outdoor market downtown. Like many here, she blames the U.S. for exporting problems, and she says what they need is real opportunities. Salvadorans say they're fed up with the robberies, extortion, assaults and threats.

DONALD ESCANIA: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Even the police are afraid of the armed gang members, says university student Donald Escania(ph). His friend, Patricia Medina(ph), says when she was robbed at gunpoint on a public bus the police were no help. Medina says she hopes El Salvador learns a few tips from the LAPD. Until now, the national police approach has been what President Saca calls the mano dura, the hard hand or the super mano dura.

SACA: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Julio Canas is a deported member of the Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador who now works to keep kids away from trouble.

JULIO CANAS: The only thing that the government from El Salvador have is oppression for the kids - kill kids in the street, kill kids in the prison. Mano dura don't work.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, San Salvador.

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