Angel and William had set out the week before from the slums of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and gotten as far as the Guatemalan-Mexican border on thumb and hoof. “One night, we had to walk until it was light out. We were too scared to stop,” confesses William, who claims to be 18 but looks four years younger. Now the boys were determined to reach Houston, where Angel’s cousin has promised them jobs.
From Tecun Uman, Guatemala, the U.S.A. is a kind of dreamland basking in the golden sunlight with a fortune to be made at the end of the red, white, and blue rainbow—or at least that’s the way it’s depicted in the mural painted inside the Casa de Los Migrantes. The Catholic-run Casa, a run-down hacienda fronting a rutted jungle path that leads to a bend in the slow-moving Suchiate River, is an obligatory pit stop for tired travelers heading north.
It’s also an invaluable trading post for news of the dangers that lie ahead and the two boys’ eyes grew wide as they considered the advice of a grizzled border vagabond: “Watch out for your partners—don’t even trust your cuate (pal),” he warned ominously. “The coyotes will take your money and then sell you to the Migra. They’ll take you to where the train leaves, but watch out! The Mara Salvatrucha owns that train and if they catch you up there without paying, they’ll throw you right off.”
Then he explained how every week migrants are found dead and dying along the track, separated from their limbs, having lost their grip on a hand-rail or else been tossed bodily from the east-bound freight, the “Mayeb,” by the dread Salvatruchas for not anteing up the cuotas fast enough. Angel and William seemed to shudder in the tropical heat at the mere mention of the much-feared Salvador-based gang that rules in this no-man’s land between Mexico and Guatemala. Yet, despite the lurid warnings, they were among 50 or so very young men and women who lined up at the Casa’s big doors by 6 p.m., itching to get on the road north. First, they would wade or swim the Suchiate (more affluent travelers coast across on inflated inner tubes). Then they’d make a beeline for the railroad tracks to catch the evening freight running east out of Ciudad Hidalgo and Tapachula through Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz up to the south Texas border, a route their fathers and mothers and big brothers had followed during the wars in Central America and after the calamitous 1999 Hurricane Mitch, from which the region has not yet recovered.
But in between here and there, as the Casa mural so graphically illustrates, there would be many obstacles—both the Mexican and Gringo Migras, border walls and fences, death in the desert—not to mention the Salvatruchas.
At dusk, the indocumentados are strung out all along the train track near threadbare settlements, darting figures camped in the hobo jungles along the right-of-way, ready to leap aboard when “El Gusano de Hierro” (“The Steel Worm”) lumbers slowly past. Suddenly, a panicked cry goes up. It’s hard to tell whether people are yelling “Migra!” or “Mara!” Dull thuds can be heard in the thick underbrush from which tall men with clubs emerge, but their identities are indistinguishable in the moonless dark and my taxi driver wants to leave at once. Maybe they are the Maras beating up on the migrants for chump change, he conjectures. More likely they are agents of Mexico’s immigration police.
Mexican immigration authorities deport 100,000-plus undocumented migrants back across the Suchiate to Tecun Uman each year (in 2003, the totals were 146,000), all of whom are deposited across the bridge in Guatemala regardless of where they actually came from. Last year, half of the complaints Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received from Central American migrant workers and their advocacy groups along the southern border accused the National Immigration Institute (INM) of brutality, extortion, and other crimes against the travelers. The Mexican Migra has such a bad rap that the government has had to invent a second police agency, the Beta-Sur units, to provide some security for the workers.
José Andres almost made it to Texas. He and his road mates had gotten all the way to Monterrey, a hundred miles from the border, but the hotel owners turned them in when they tried to beat the bill. Now he was borrowing money to call his people back in Honduras. Despite his bruises, he would start out again tonight. “If the police catch me again, I’ll only get a beating,” he said. “But the Maras could kill me.”
Yet he appeared undaunted; he had his chimba (lead pipe, the Salvatrucha weapon of choice) hidden out in the jungle beyond the Casa walls and was prepared to use it. “They will think I am one of them,” he laughed, flashing a small tattoo on his inner lip as he walked off.
Salvatrucha psychosis is thriving along Mexico’s southern border. Tabloid headlines tout the gang’s notoriety in big black letters. The Tapachula hotel where I stayed had 24 hour-a-day video cameras in the hallways to keep the Maras out of my room. The Chiapas state police has formed an inter-agency taskforce code-named “Operation Steel” to keep the gangbangers in check. Last year nearly 700 suspected Maras were caught.
Immigration authorities tend to be alarmist about the Salvatrucha invasion, estimating that 25 to 50 members cross into Mexico each day. The INM has detected Salvatrucha presence in eight states and the Federal District. The agency estimates a total of 5,000 members are in Mexico, 3,000 of them grouped in 200 bands hunkered down in squatter colonies around Tapachula, a sort of tropical Tijuana where anything—stolen cars, kilos of cocaine, pounds of human flesh—seems to be for sale. But xenophobia is a condition of life in this border region and any undocumented kid picked up on the hard road north is apt to be counted into the mix.
The Mara Salvatrucha was born on the mean streets of California in the late 1970s and ’80s as refugees from the bloodletting in Salvador streamed into the state, seeking sanctuary. Forced to defend themselves from long-established Mexican youth gangs, the older kids organized new arrivals into a respected fighting force that was as much into heavy metal music and stoner drugs as rumbling with the Mexicans. The etymology of the name is open to question. Presumably, the “Salva-” prefix refers to the members’ country of origin but it could also mean “save yourself” in Spanish. “Trucha” is a trout, the slippery fish whose agility in navigating troubled waters is a characteristic of these hardened youths’ lives. “Mara” is Salvadoran slang for a group of friends but may borrow attitude from the “Mara Bunta,” a particularly virulent Central American ant army. In the Salvatrucha lexicon, the “mara” is a tattoo, mandatory ID for members.
By the ’90s, with the war in El Salvador winding down, the Salvatruchas began to drift home. Some, doing time in California prisons, were deported directly back to a country they barely remembered. Others were sent back by their families to keep them out of trouble. They coalesced in a post-war El Salvador where chaos reigned and everything was up for grabs. Recognizing themselves as “jomies” (“homeboys”), the Maras strong-armed their way into the street rackets, pushed dope, and were accused of dozens of kidnappings for ransom. Half the homicides in El Salvador were pinned on them. In 2002 the Salvadoran legislature passed an anti-Mara law; the crackdown soon spread to Honduras and Guatemala, where the Salvatruchas have branch offices. The Salvadoran police’s Operation “Mano Duro” (Hard Hand) collared 5,000 suspect truchas in its first hundred days.
Then the Maras started to turn up horribly dead, decapitated and eviscerated on the city streets—the police attributed the butchery to the gang’s brutal nature. But the truth may be more diffuse. Some victims were found cruelly disfigured by tortures such as being hung up by their thumbs, a practice emblematic of the work of military and police death squads during a war that took 100,000 lives before a peace agreement was signed in 1992. “Homies United,” a California group that seeks to rehabilitate repentant Maras, sees the hand of the “Sombra Negra” (Black Shadow), purportedly a death squad composed of ex-soldiers.
But whoever is responsible for the killings, the clean-up campaign is scattering the Salvatruchas. According to a recent piece in the Mexican daily La Jornada, the Salvatruchas are sandblasting off their tattoos and swimming north again for their own safety.
Today, the Maras are an international conglomerate with functioning organizations in three Central American countries, Mexico, and the United States, including such unlikely locations as Somerville, Massachusetts; Dodge City, Kansas; and Nashville, Tennessee (where Salvadoran labor built a new football stadium for the Titans).
The Mareros divide roughly into three tribes—the Mara Salvatruchas (MS) or original gangsters; the M-13s or “Calle 13s” (“M” is the 13th letter of the alphabet); and the M-18s, once part of the network of cliques that gathered in the 18th Street Gang, Los Angeles’s largest, with an estimated 20,000 members. Each of the Salvatrucha clicas is governed by a council of “Macisos” (“tough guys”) and lives by a lethal code that does not tolerate traitors and informers; internal strife is dealt with harshly. Initiation in the M-13s consists of a brutal 13-second beating with lead pipes. Elaborate gang hand-signals and face tattoos are Salvatrucha trademarks—some add a tattooed teardrop for every kill. And others a cross to body tattoos. Removing a tattoo is considered a grave violation of the Mara code although, as gang members travel north, they reportedly remove them to avoid police detection or else engrave them on interior body surfaces like Jose Andres.
Because of heavy Mexican immigration controls that try to keep the Maras bottled up in Chiapas, the Mexican-Guatemalan border has become a temporary concentration point for the Salvatruchas. Sleepy border towns during the day, Ciudad Hidalgo and Tecun Uman (a city with an unusually large number of one-legged men begging on its dusty streets) turn violent in the dark, with whorehouses and cantinas running full blast.
Maras who take up residence in the squatter colonies along the Tapachula border soon become role models for impoverished farm kids, wannabe “M-13s” and “M-18s” who decorate schoolhouse walls with gang graffiti, do house burglaries, beat on hapless migrants, and occasionally tangle with each other.
Meanwhile, the true-blue Salvatruchas are moving on to more fertile fields the moment they are able to get away from the border, a phenomenon that has made its way into Latin American literature. Rafael Ramírez Heredia’s new novel, La Mara, is a magic realist tale featuring a drag queen who controls the traffic across the Suchiate with the assistance of brutal Salvatrucha lieutenants. Ramírez researched Mara lore in Tecun Uman, Honduras, and Salvador. The real dimensions of the Salvatrucha phenomenon are grossly underappreciated, according to Ramírez.
“There are 300,000 hungry kids coming north to this border every year,” he writes. “Every one of them is a potential Mara.”
John Ross recently returned from a month-long odyssey to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.