Gang Nation: Series Premiere

[11 February 2009]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Blood for Blood

I can’t see any good coming out of this place.
—Ross Kemp, outside Ciudad Barrios

Standing in front of the principal courthouse in San Salvador, investigative journalist Ross Kemp says he’s come “to see for myself just how bad the gang problem is.” He’s especially interested in meeting members of Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS 13, the “biggest, fastest-growing gang on the planet.” He pauses. “And notoriously, the most violent.”

Bald-headed and burly, Kemp wears a black t-shirt and looks intently at the camera. Perhaps best known for his award-winning work as an actor on EastEnders, Kemp has since 2006 been looking into gang culture around the world. Now he’s reporting on his findings for Investigation Discovery’s seven-part series, Gang Nation (premiering 10 February), each week visiting a different location. For the first episode, he’s in San Salvador, “the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America.” Again, he pauses, then adds, “And the most dangerous.” Kemp’s tendency to repeat phrasings is not just a dramatic affect. He’s also underscoring his primary point: many of the young men and women he’s interviewing are brutal killers, but just as significantly, they live in brutal circumstances. Pointing out that MS 13 has been deemed “the second biggest threat to America,” after al Qaeda, Kemp asserts, “What I want to know is how do these gangs develop so quickly and why they’re so violent.” 

Kemp’s inquiry begins with the same basic information offered in most stories on MS 13. The gang started among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles during the 1980s, then spread to Central America—Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. In El Salvador, especially, the gang took hold quickly: following the decades-long civil war, the population was poor and weary: MS 13 and its primary rival, the 18th Street gang, embraced and exacerbated the climate of fear and violence, bringing from the States an organization and a viciously self-defensive worldview. “We saw and we learned,” says Duke, an older gang member who used to live in L.A. “Even if we didn’t want to, I mean, violence was in us.” They took as examples American urban gangs, emerging from poverty and despair, defined in large measure by race. “We saw whites being proud of being white, we saw blacks being proud of being black. Why wouldn’t we be proud of being Salvadorian?”

Kemp describes this attitude succinctly (it’s “I hate everybody else who isn’t in my gang, I will kill anybody who isn’t in my gang”) and notes the irony that MS 13 “started as a response to persecution in the U.S.” He also presses his subjects to be more self-reflective, asking why someone from “the other neighborhood” is automatically the enemy (Kemp points out that MS 13 members won’t even say the name, “18th Street,” indicating the intransigence of their hostility). His interviewees include prisoners inside Ciudad Barrios, one of the country’s several institutions with populations segregated by gang affiliation, a strategy instituted in 2001, to not quite manage a prison population that has increased 80% since the government started its draconian Mano Dura policy, whereby police can arrest people for wearing gang tattoos and clothing.

Guards don’t even venture inside the yard and cells at Ciudad Barrios, which are “guarded completely from the outside.” From a prisoner named Hugo, he gets the necessary permission to interview members of a clica, one of many subgroups in the city, where turf is maintained block by block, such that rivals live right down the street from one another. Here he meets Chuco, charismatic and apparently forthright about his choices: “I started, let’s say, looking for revenge because they killed my uncle,” Chuco tells Kemp. “I got my revenge and then I stayed.”

“They look like a bunch of scared lads to me,” says Kemp. Their longstanding poverty, he adds, belies the standard story that they’re trafficking millions of dollars worth of cocaine; this, he and journalist Lionel Gomez agree, is business conducted by a government that uses the gangs as distraction for the public, mounting raids on gang headquarters in front of TV camera crews. “The biggest gang in the country is probably the government,” Kemp asserts, so big that it ensures everyone who might “do something about it” remains afraid and unable to expose corruption or raise questions. 

Kemp, on the other hand, is repeatedly bold. Learning that Chuco has a wife currently imprisoned (with their baby daughter, born inside), Kemp provide the family with an opportunity to visit: traveling with the camera crew, Chuco is protected from both 18th Street and the cops (Kemp’s openness about intervening in and even helping to orchestrate his subjects’ lives is actually refreshing: no pretense of documentary “objectivity” here).

Kemp’s next stop is an education and vocational training center for women gang members, where his subjects—MS 13 and 18th Street members living side by side—confess they have done the same work as their male counterparts (that is, they have committed murders) and describe their initiation rituals. Some had gang-identifications tattooed on their faces, others were “jumped in” in more familiar ways. They say they were given a choice between beating and gang rape. Kemp asks, “Do you get more respect if you go in by violence or you go in by love?”

On its face, the question is stunning. How could rape be considered anything but violence? But the women don’t blink, assuring Kemp that “hurt” is the more respectable means of induction. And then you see that the exchange makes Kemp’s point, again: gang life is nothing but hurt for participants, everyone is a victim, always.

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