Let's Try to Dress Decently, Homies
A group of teens walk slowly, offering advice to a young woman. “You can’t defend yourself in the initiation,” says one. “If you try to defend yourself, you’ll get another one in the face and then you’ll get a good kicking.” She takes the counsel to heart. When her companions circle her and draw near (sending one to keep a lookout for cops), she collapses to the ground, accepting the beatdown which is, by all appearances, brutal. A few seconds later, it’s over. Her assailants help her stand and announce, “Welcome to the gang!”
As an introduction to 18 With a Bullet, Ricardo Pollack’s 2006 documentary on street gangs in San Salvador, this scene is surely effective, though also misleading. The rest of the film, re-airing on Wide Angle on 5 August, is not about initiation rituals, young women members, or even intra-gang aggression. It is, instead, focused on three young men in 18, the 16-year-old leader Charlie, 30something veteran Slappy, and rising star Chavieso. (The film is updated with an epilogue, an interview with Chavieso’s mother Vilma, living in the U.S. and distraught that her youngest son, whom she last saw eight years ago, is now imprisoned for attempted murder, serving a 15-year sentence.) Each young man has a different story, none of them happy.
As the film explains, 18, along with its more infamous counterpart and enemy gang, MS-13, is increasingly a global phenomenon, initiated when L.A. gang members were deported to Central America (many members of the 18th Street Gang) and brought back organization and ethos. In San Salvador, the gangsters found poverty, parentless children, and weapons, plentiful and cheap following the end of the 12-year civil war in 1992. The gangs provide seeming structure amid chaos, missions and conventional masculine identities. Charlie says, “I like going out killing, calling the shots in the neighborhood,” his baby face at odds with his role as authority. Disciplining his crew members, he instructs them on behavior and appearance (“Let’s try to dress decently, homies,” he says, “I know you all like to look like gangsters”), and assigns punishments when they fight amongst themselves. “I have to make sure everyone’s okay and they’re not breaking the rules,” he sighs. “Sometimes it’s like a kindergarten or school.”
Charlie’s basic business operations are meager (the gang makes about $60 a week selling marijuana, just over the average income in El Salvador), and so they have to extort money from local vendors and bus drivers. “This allows is to buy stuff,” Charlie explains as he bags weed. “It’s our work.” Despite the ostensibly low financial stakes, the gangs are fierce about turf and especially, reputation. Most of the violence is retaliatory, which means, essentially, the cycle is endless. Every murder warrants another in revenge.
When Slappy first appears in 18 With a Bullet, he’s in hiding, after the murder of an MS-13 gang member. This means he’s separated from his wife Erika and their three young sons, which troubles him, visibly and deeply. Now that he has kids, he says, he thinks twice about killing someone else’s child (though apparently not about the recent MS-13 hit). “I want to give them a good education and a good example,” Slappy says of his sons. “They’ve never seen me with a gun.”
The film makes the not-so-new point that kids without parents are especially susceptible to gang affiliations. Sochi’s mother left to go work in the States when he was just six months old. Cutting between a tattoo session and Sochi’s interview, the film allows him to make his case: “My love for my mother and my love for the gang are two different things,” he says, “I love my gang more than my mother because when I needed her, she wasn’t there for me, but when I needed the gang, it was there for me.” Just 17 years old, he imagines his future will include prison or the hospital, “possibly even death.” Still, he’d like to live to be 37, maybe 39.
Chavieso speaks briefly with his mother by phone, tears in his eyes. “You think I am happy this way?” he pleads with her. “A thousand times, I told you I want to be with you.” Missing his mother is too painful, clearly, and so he focuses on his chances to put in work for the gang, to secure a connection somewhere. What he doesn’t want is to end up feeling alone like Slappy, whose drug addiction has made him a problem for the gang. Erika threatens to leave him, and Charlie insists that he pay the price for showing weakness. “That drug’s taken over his life,” Charlie observes. While he begins to cut pieces of crack to fit into plastic bags, Charlie continues, “This is crack. We can sell this to other people, but never to homeboys. Anyone who sells to homeboys gets a beating because it’s against the rules.”
Again and again, 18 With a Bullet reinforces this idea, that the rules are all important. They stand in for love, loyalty, and achievement, make gang culture look like the mainstream world from which it is derived. When Slappy at last decides to kick his habit, he commits another murder, in the name of the gang. Asked to explain himself, he has a logic. “I wanted to stop smoking and in a certain way, I thought this was gonna help me stop smoking.” As he heads to prison, having lost his family, he feels assured that he has his gang.