The Two-Way
2:03 pm
Wed June 1, 2011

In El Salvador: Gang Leaders Who Say They're Social Workers

While reporting for his three-part series on drug trafficking in Central America, NPR's Jason Beaubien spoke at length with "Blue" (a pseudonym) the second in command of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador.

In today's report, Jason says that:

"Blue looks more like an evangelical preacher than a leader in one of the most feared gangs in the hemisphere. He's wearing a short-sleeved beige button-down shirt and black slacks. His hair is neatly parted and swept across his brow. Only his missing right arm, which got blown off by a hand grenade, hints at his violent career."

How did Jason get to speak with this man?

Through a sociologist who works with gang members, Jason told us by phone earlier today. And Blue, Jason says, was willing to talk because he and his fellow gang members "really believe that they are doing good in the community. They believe that their gang structure ... replaces what the state isn't giving" — security, water, a community hall.

He met gang member Luis Alberto Espinoza Aranda, Jason says, at a clinic. He too was was very willing to talk — and to say that while he would like to quit the gangs, it isn't an option because he wouldn't be able to find any other livelihood.

Espinoza's mother, says Jason, has three sons "and all three of them are in the 18th Street gang and as soon as she started talking about their involvement in the gang, she started just breaking down crying."

It was in conversations with people such as Blue and Espinoza and in his travels through the country, says Jason, that it became more clear than ever that "the gangs are incredibly 'present.' You see the gang graffiti, you see the guys on the street corners with their tattoos. The gang structure is very much a part of the capital."

If Mexican cartels move in to work with the gangs in El Salvador, Jason says, the power and money from the Mexicans combined with the organizational structure of the gangs would create "a terrible, terrible combination."

And a linking of Mexican and Salvadoran gangs, says Jason, would give them "a very firm base in El Salvador for moving drugs up [to the U.S.] and laundering money" that comes back down.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.