A ‘gang czar’ is not enough

By Randy Jurado Ertll 12/13/2007

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Salvadoran Americans have become stereotypically associated with gangs. Continuing media coverage, most recently of a massive law-enforcement crackdown on Nov. 15 targeting a Salvadoran-American gang in Los Angeles, has helped perpetuate this notion.

The National Geographic Channel has even gone so far to call MS 13 “the world’s most dangerous gang,” adding to the sensationalism about gangs. The great majority of Salvadorans, though, have led successful lives in the United States, in spite of several hurdles placed in their way. To the extent that there is a gang problem, it is due to the special circumstances of the community.

Many Salvadoran children were forcibly recruited to fight in the civil war that devastated their country from 1980 to 1992. They became adept at using M16s, AK-47s and rocket launchers, raiding military barracks and blowing up bridges. Salvadoran children thus became hardened soldiers and guerrillas. They lost their innocence when they saw their parents being tortured or murdered.

These children then came to the United States in the 1980s and moved to Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC, and other major US cities. They left a cruel, heartless civil war only to confront another brutal and violent environment here in our cities.

These children were discriminated against in their new neighborhoods and schools. They did not fit in because they were undocumented immigrants who were not granted real refugee status (unlike Cubans, who are granted automatic refugee status), they did not speak English and their clothing and demeanor marked them as recent immigrants.

Be they Mexican or Salvadoran, young recruits to gangs seem to share one attribute, which is a search for respect in a foreign society. A big challenge for Salvadoran youth was dealing with Chicano and African-American gangs. The response to this challenge was, unfortunately, one that involved violence.

Many of these children had to defend themselves when robbed or beaten. Violence was also perpetuated at the family level, since the cruelties of the civil war instilled fear, oppression and anger in the hearts of our population. For the last couple of decades, the US government has resorted to deporting these gang members, which has created an amazing growth of gangs in Mexico and Central America. The problem has not been resolved, just exported.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger don’t seem to have a real plan to help the thousands of young Salvadorans living in Los Angeles and throughout California. Creating positions for gang czars is not enough.

A first step in a constructive direction would be job-skills training and job creation for these young people. We need them to find a prosperous future through education and jobs — the best barrier against joining a gang or becoming a prison statistic.

Let us roll up our sleeves and begin to help our youth. We cannot afford to lose another generation of Salvadorans to violence.

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