- Created on Sunday, 19 August 2012 20:34
- Written by IVN
Los Angeles, California - During his fieldwork one evening in Los Angeles, USC professor Thomas Ward found himself staring down the barrel of a gang member’s gun.
This brush with death was a promise and a threat - Ward better pass the gang’s background check or else.
Though a sobering reminder of the dangers of participant-observation fieldwork with hardcore gang members, Ward was not deterred from completing his ethnography of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
Ward spent the better part of 16 years inside what is considered one of the world’s largest gangs, the MS-13.
Ward drank with gang members at parties, baked them birthday cakes, and met their children and their parents. He visited them in hospitals after they were shot or stabbed, and visited them in prison after they were convicted. He also attended their funerals. They told him about their dreams and their motivations.
Ward became close with a dozen hard-core gangsters as he interviewed more than 150 gang members from eight different cliques during the course of his fieldwork – in Los Angeles, California state prisons, Salvadoran prisons, and the homes of retired gang members in El Salvador.
The fieldwork, culminating with the just released Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang (Oxford University Press), provides insight into the world of street gangs.
Though the subject of movies and documentaries, and glorified in gangster rap in the United States, much of gang life is misunderstood because of the clandestine nature of this subculture, Ward said.
“Gangs are an inextricable part of American life,” Ward said. “Yet there is still a large gap between the reality of street gangs and the public perception of what it means to be a gang member.”
Ward began his research in 1993 by meeting with five active members of the gang in Los Angeles. Subsequently, two of these gang members died from gang violence, one recovered from crack addiction, and another is serving life in prison. Those first connections led Ward into the hard, fast life of hardcore gangsters.
Over the years, he had many candid conversations with gang members, from the time of their initiations until long after, when they were thinking about leaving la vida loca, or the crazy life, the Spanish term gang members often use to describe their lifestyle. Ward discovered that gang members were often allowed to retire after a few years of service with the gang and move on to a full-time job and family responsibilities.
Using a variety of ethnographic techniques, including formal and informal interviews and observations in a number of different settings, Ward was able to document the complexity of their lives over the course of their gang careers.
While Ward he was invited to sell drugs, commit robberies, participate in drive-by shootings, and even become an honorary member of the gang, he always declined to participate in illegal activities.
Before immersing himself in the street gang subculture, Ward had spent 14 years researching homeless people living on skid row in downtown Los Angeles, and the Salvadoran immigrant community in Los Angeles.
Ward first started working with the Salvadoran community in 1981 while volunteering with a social service agency that provided food, shelter and legal services for Central American refugees fleeing their war-ravaged country.
The experience would prove valuable: Ward learned about Salvadoran history and culture, including their slang, which helped him earn trust among the MS-13 members. But this background only provided a thin veil of protection when Ward had a gun put to his head and a knife held against his throat with the warning that he would be killed if he were an undercover cop. The gang members didn’t take Ward’s word for it –they did a background investigation, by calling his employer and checking out his references in Los Angeles.
Despite these death threats, Ward saw a human side to these MS-13 members, people who had lived difficult lives, and were searching for something better. They longed for familial connections, status and self-respect.
“If gang members see no hope in their future, nothing is going to change,” Ward said.
The MS-13 gang was born during the bloody civil war in El Salvador. Refugee children were illegally smuggled into Los Angeles in the early‘80s and ‘90s. Many of these youth were separated from their parents, did not speak English, and were traumatized from having seen the atrocities of warfare.
To cope with this unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environment, these boys and girls formed the street gang called Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly translates to Watch Out for Us Salvadoran Gangsters.
What started as a group for self-protection morphed into a predatory gang involved in crime, drugs and violence to gain territory and to make money. But always, Ward said, there was a sense of family, belonging and purpose.
Many of these gang members end up in prison, which they call “a finishing school for crime,” Ward said. Most of them are undocumented immigrants and are vulnerable to deportation to El Salvador.
Those who were deported back to the war-torn country of their youth, where grenades can be bought for $2, found respect in being an LA gangster. And they found fertile ground for starting new gangs.
“The street gang subculture was an American export to Central America,”Ward said.
Ward points out the cyclical nature of violence. Those Salvadoran youth who had grown up during the civil war were traumatized by the violence, which colored and distorted their perceptions and caused them to have a fatalistic view of the world, and it heavily influenced their decision to join a street gang in Los Angeles. While the creation of MS in the United States was a byproduct of the civil war in El Salvador, the deportations of gang members resulted in a new form of violence.
Before beginning the research, Ward had seen gangs through the eyes of the nightly news, film and television, and believed in the stereotype of street gangs – that gang life was fast and furious, filled with drugs, women and money. Although the media has dubbed MS-13 as “one of the world’s most dangerous gangs,” Ward said that this unquantifiable label is not only meaningless, it also unintentionally helps MS recruit new members.
“Street gangs thrive in the poorest neighborhoods in our urban communities,” Ward said. “They are highly complex social organizations that serve multiple functions. Some gangs are like deviant social clubs providing camaraderie, excitement and entertainment. Other gangs are like paramilitary organizations that provide protection and opportunity for economic gain and status. Most youth join street gangs in their search for a particular quality of life, a sense of self-worth and a sense of belonging to a group that cares about their welfare and survival.”
Ward’s research focused on gang members’ struggle for survival and status and their emotional connections with each other that Ward witnessed firsthand.
“The overarching goal of this research was to get into the heads and hearts of these Salvadoran immigrants, to understand the motives for their behaviors, and to document the complexity of their gangster lives,” Ward said. “Without an understanding of the context of their behavior, we will not be able to solve the problems created by street gang members.”