Los Angeles Daily News

June 4, 1995
You literally can read Mauricio Tomasino's young face.

Tattooed above his left eyebrow is the name of his gang - 18th Street.

At the base of his 22-year-old neck, in Spanish: "I die for my mother and I kill for my neighborhood."

But that street and neighborhood are not here in San Salvador. They are back in Los Angeles, where Tomasino joined a street gang and picked up skills such as drive-by shootings, dope dealing, looting and car theft.

"Me and my homeboys snatched color TVs, clothes to take to the swap meet, a lot of shoes, anything," Tomasino said, describing the 1992 Los Angeles riots that erupted after the Rodney King trial.

Deported from the United States 18 months ago, he now is organizing his barrio boys and helping to fuel the phenomenal rise in violence by American- style street gangs established in virtually every city and major town here, with an estimated 10,000 members.

It is a rise that suddenly took on a frightening dimension with the end of the civil war in 1992, when some of the 1 million people who fled abroad to escape the fighting began returning from such places as California and Texas, bringing back U.S. customs and mores.

"Looking at them, their clothing, their hand signs, I thought I was in parts of Los Angeles," said Tom Gallagher, a U.S. Embassy security expert who previously worked in California.

But there's a big difference.

Gangs here are more lethal, armed not just with pistols and sawed-off shotguns but with assault rifles, hand grenades and even anti-tank rockets obtained on the region's black markets. And a few members are former soldiers or guerrillas with plenty of combat experience.

The rise of gangs in El Salvador can be traced partly through the odyssey of members like Tomasino.

His family fled from San Salvador to Los Angeles about halfway through the brutal 12-year civil war that claimed 75,000 lives.

In his early teens, Tomasino fell in with the Hollywood Gangsters, a branch of the 18th Street gang, a huge group that dominates sectors of Southern California. He fought with rivals and sold crack, floating in and out of jail at least 10 times.

But in September 1993, Tomasino was taken from Los Angeles County Jail and put on a plane back to El Salvador, one of 144 Salvadoran gang members deported over a two-year period as part of a crackdown by the U.S. Justice Department's Violent Gang Task Force.

"These are all criminal aliens," said Michael Flynn, a top Immigration and Naturalization Service official in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "You're getting the worst of the worst . . . heavyweight criminals."

And more are coming. Some 700 Salvadoran gang members are in California state jails awaiting deportation once their sentences are up, Flynn said.

Many more teen-agers are being sent back to El Salvador by parents fretting that they might fall into mischief or join some gang in the United States - and are winding up joining gangs in their homeland.

One 18-year-old whose gang nickname is Bullet said he was sent back to El Salvador by his mother after he and his brother tried to steal four shotguns from a Kmart in Hyattsville, Md.

"They caught us before we could shoot anyone," said his brother, Bandit.

Today, the typical attire of a gang member here comes straight from Los Angeles: Baggy Bermuda shorts that hang over the knees, long white tube socks, backward baseball cap and a practiced, angry slouch.

And gang communication is in a mix of Los Angeles street talk and Spanish. "La chota" is the police. "Los" is short for Los Angeles. And ''tirar barrio" - literally "to throw the neighborhood" - means to flash the hand signals that distinguish one neighborhood gang from another.

Many gang members in fact say they don't belong in El Salvador. Sometimes speaking Spanish poorly, they stand out, can't get jobs and stick to their own neighborhoods.

Added the gang member who calls himself Bullet: "I love America."

The same hatreds that trigger "gang banging" - clashes between rival gangs, like the Bloods and the Crips in California - have erupted in El Salvador.

Only here it is not just fighting, it is warfare.

In the poor San Salvador suburb of Apopa earlier this year, members of the two main gangs, the 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, squared off "with AK-47s, with grenades and all kinds of weapons," said Rodrigo Avila, chief of the National Civilian Police.

Television footage of gang arsenals has included shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets apparently obtained in the region's thriving black market in arms. In fact, gang members often are as well or better armed than police.

Mara Salvatrucha, with 3,000 to 5,000 members in Southern California, is known "for absolutely a merciless sort of killing," said a Violent Gang Task Force officer in Los Angeles, adding that gang members "literally executed" three U.S. law enforcement agents in recent years.

The gangs are feeling their strength. In a moment of bravado, a young Mara Salvatrucha member nicknamed Frog told a reporter: "We could topple the government."

That's definitely hyperbole.

But the gangs clearly have been deeply involved in a wave of crime that is distressing Salvadorans. One poll by the Central American University last year said residents of the capital felt less secure then than at the worst point of the war.

The government is now debating whether to adopt the death penalty, and President Armando Calderon Sol on occasion has been forced to deploy soldiers this year to help police curb lawlessness.

"This is unbearable. . . . This is hell," an agitated Jose Luis Azucena said as he recounted how his 18-year-old nephew was killed by a grenade March 13 amid gang fighting in central San Salvador. "The authorities here, they can't do anything."

Gang activity is not limited to El Salvador. In tiny Belize, local branches of the Crips and the Bloods have flourished for years. Guatemala City alone is estimated to have nearly 60 gangs, many of them believed to be involved in criminal rackets.

But only in El Salvador are the gangs so highly developed.

Using their transnational connections, both the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang, a multi-ethnic group of as many as 18,000 members in California, are involved in drug trafficking.

"Here in the urban area," said Avila, the Salvadoran police chief, ''those who control the trafficking of marijuana and cocaine are the gangs."

There's more. Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms queried Salvadoran authorities about the origin of a group of assault rifles and grenades found in Los Angeles - a sign of international arms trafficking by the gangs, Avila said.

The gangs' future is not entirely bright in El Salvador, however.

Public outcry over gang-related crimes has coincided with the emergence of a death squad, the Black Shadow, which has claimed responsibility or been blamed for the assassination of 23 suspected gang members and criminals since January.

Tomasino said he knew one of the victims, a gang leader deported from the United States.

"The guy was big. He was buff," he said, adding that the Black Shadow death squad is going after "the ones who are robbing and gang-banging."

But other gang members, even those who are in jail, said they are scared enough to take flight.

Once out of prison, said Bandit, "I'm chilling. I'm going to Los. I got my green card."