One of the "solutions" we often heard in Guatemala to the growing gang violence there was "social cleansing." Repeated by officials and common people alike, this literally means what it says: the active and violent removal of alleged gang members, including by murder. In their view, courts and jails are not quick or harsh enough for them. In fact, this has also been true in El Salvador and Honduras. Cases include the vigilante murders of street kids as young as seven years old. Most of the cases, however, involved tattooed teenagers.
In Central America, tattoos for many people represent gang involvement. Of course, those of us in LA know better. When I was involved in gangs in the 1960s and 1970s tattoos were mostly gang affiliated–primarily the Chicano gangs of the time. Not even African American gangs sported tattoos like the Chicanos did, which they had been doing since the Pachuco/Zootsuit days of the 1920s to the 1940s. Chicanos perfected the "fine line" jail-house tattoos that were soon sported by Anglo bikers, prisoners, and even military personnel. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hip Hop artists and sports figures, mostly African American, popularized this style in music videos and movies (as they did other Chicano artistic expressions like lowriding). Well known Chicano street artists like Mr. Cartoon became famous placing ink on people like 50 Cent, Eminem, Cypress Hill, and others.
Now tattoos are used by actors, singers, rich people, jet setters, and coffee house afficionados. It’s not a big thing. Meanwhile, Chicanos and other Latinos, including the Central Americans who came to LA in the 1980s escaping war and poverty, continued the extensive use of tattoos. Gang members in LA (and most of the Southwest) are known for tattooing every part of their body — something that also now includes African Americans, Cambodians, Armenians, Anglos, and others.
"Smile Now, Cry Later," crosses, chains, spider webs, cholas, area codes (like 213 or 818), gang affiliations, placasos (gang nicknames), Aztec and Mayan motifs, song titles, the Virgin of Guadelupe, LA (Dodger style), and such all became popular among gang youth. Anything and everything.
So when the US deported tens of thousands of alleged gang members to Mexico and Central America beginning in 1992 (after the LA Rebellion) and then going strong in 1996 after the changes in immigration law emphasized the deportation of felons and gang members, tattooed youth flooded these countries that for the most part did not sport tattoos for fashion or otherwise.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, the two countries in Central America I’ve visited since the early 1990s when LA-based gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Eighteen Street (called Mara 18 in El Salvador) were first introduced, I saw heavily tattooed youth (including on their faces, necks, heads, hands, arms, backs, stomachs, and elsewhere) in prisons and in the streets.
You can imagine the impact they’ve had on countries not familiar with this kind of style or substance. But also the impact it would have on the tens of thousands of homeless, abandoned and glue-sniffing kids (most of them orphaned by war and poverty). In time, many of these joined MS or 18 Street (many home-grown gangs have also been absorbed by these two gangs).
Today death squads and other vigilantes, as well as police, have unfairly targeted tattooed and US-raised or influenced kids as gang members. Many youth have showed up in hospitals beaten and tortured. Others are brought into morgues with their hands tied behind their backs. And still many more are warehoused in the overflowing prisons–some of the most stark, inhumane and overcrowded places you’d ever want to see.
For example, in 1993, I visited two prisons in El Salvador that housed many gang youth: Mariona (the main prison in San Salvador) and San Vicente de Gotera (interviewing gang youth and officials). And I did the same thing this past week with Fabian Montes and Pascual Torres of Homeboy Industries. We entered two Guatemalan prisons: Centro Preventivo Para Hombres, Zona 18, Sector 11 (a maximum security men’s prison with over 1,000 inmates) and Centro Preventivo Para Mujeres, Zona 18, Santa Teresa (a maximum security women’s prison with 160 inmates).
In Guatemala there are 19 prisons housing more than 7,000 prisoners. MS and 18 Street are housed in separate facilities. While most of the prisoners in the two places we visited were not in gangs, they did have a cell block solely dedicated to alleged gang members. We were able to go into this cell block, past the locked bars, and hang for a couple of hours with the inmates there.
The gang members were leery of us at first, but as we talked (and I showed them copies of my books in Spanish), they opened up. Fabian, Pascual and I told them about our concerns to bring a new vision and imagination to working with gang youth in Guatemala–including more resources, jobs (getting companies to hire gang members), training, education, and other meaningful & effective means to incorporate these young people, tattooed or not, into the country. Incipient efforts of rehabilitation was being done there–including painting (inmates were working on murals as we talked), religious studies, and silk screen.
In the women’s prison, we went through several barred gates to the deepest sections where the most violent and alleged gang women were being held. We saw women learning theater, dance, and religion (Christian). Others were making bags (from plastic-like thread), amazingly beautiful candles, and household cleaning solutions that had odors of fruit, flowers, and even bubblegum.
We spent all day in the two prisons, including talking to the rehabilitation counselors and arts volunteers.
In the end we were able to meet and talk to intelligent, artistic and articulate young people (including with tattoos all over their faces).
Our message to the country–to say no to "social cleansing" and instead focus on social healing. To help bring real jobs, training, understanding and a human face to the issue of gangs in Guatemala. We left the mud-strewn colonias and open-air jail blocks (as well as the community centers, universities, and other places we talked at) with much clarity on the extremely difficult situation that places like Guatemala are facing today. But we also left with the need to help provide whatever experiences we’ve gained working with gang youth (which I have been doing for 30 years, and Homeboy Industries has done for 20 years).
Note: For those who are up and about, I’m on the air this whole week from 4:20 AM until 6 AM on LA’s KJLH Radio, 102.3 FM. I’ll be guest hosting again (it’s truly an honor to be invited back) with "Front Page" host Dominique DiPrima. Please tune in if you can.
Luis Rodriguez is a co-founder of Rock A Mole Productions and a contributing editor at Rock & Rap Confidential . He is the author of several books, including Always Running: Mi Vida Loca–Gang Days in LA, The Republic of East LA and the novel Music of the Mill published by Rayo/Harper Collins. For more information about his cultural center in LA, visit tiachucha.com. For more on his writing and activism, visit Luisjrodriguez.com.