A few weeks ago I had to write a legal brief for a client who applied for asylum. Part of the brief involved researching “country conditions,” to explain why the applicant wasn’t willing to return to his country of origin.

In this case, my client is from Guatemala, and left the country fleeing from gang members. So I started doing research on gangs in Guatemala, including crime rates, prosecution rates, etc. I’ve written about violence in Guatemala before, so parts of this weren’t too shocking. Others were.

In my research, it was interesting to learn how a couple of the main gangs started, mainly Mara Salvatrucha. They began in the streets of Los Angeles, and spread to Mexico and Central America after immigration legislation allowed illegal aliens with a criminal history to be deported. This meant that thousands of gang members began to be deported to their country of origin, and they began spreading gangs in those territories, frequently coming back to the United States, or establishing connections on both sides. These gangs have now created loose affiliations with “narco-traficantes,” aka drug dealers. Small Central-American countries with little police enforcement, and absolute corruption and impunity, create great corridors for drugs that are making their way from South America into the United States: bring drugs into El Salvador and Guatemala, where you can bribe the local police, and smuggle them in to Mexico, and onward to the U.S. (You can check out organizations like International Crisis Groups for more info on this situation.)

Here in South Orange County, we seem to be having a gang problem of our own. It won’t be a huge shocker to know that gangs are made up of Hispanic men, mainly from Mexico and Central America. A news article was published early this year in a local paper of San Clemente, commenting on the “racial backlash” resulting after a gang-related shooting. As I tend to do, I started reading the comments, and as always, was pretty blown away by some of them. For example:

  • Screw Mexican gangs. Stupid kids would not join a gang if they had decent parents. Send these fools back yonTJ.. Take your drugs and violence back to your filthy Mexico.”
  • “And what is the likelihood these gang-banging scum are either illegal invaders or the byproduct thereof! How much more is America going to tolerate? It’s past time for “backlash” against these criminals and this illegal invasion we are being subjected to and injured by!”
  • “The dereliction of duty, bordering on treason, on the part of those we pay and entrust to uphold our laws is turning this country into a clone of the lawless, violent, and corrupt third world countries the illegal aliens left behind before invading ours.”
  • “As long as we turn a blind eye to the truth lies will be passed on to our children. This is our town a white town with waves and sunsets not gangs and guns what happend to slinging fists instead of bullets to bad we don’t call it what it is a problem that needs to be dealt with what is rascism but a excuse for the deeds done by scum it will never change til we stand up as a people a community and change it unit and take back what’s yours or it will be gone tommorow. Los Angeles was once a nice place to live. Stop being afraid of being called a racist it’s called realist because it’s what’s really going on. Pray for peace but prepare for war” (I decided to leave grammar mistakes in. Their mistake, not mine!)

These are but a few examples, obviously there are tons of “insightful” comments.

But these comments got me thinking. Is it racism to want to live safely? These gang members are Hispanic, and although I don’t have the facts to back it up, most of them are probably here illegally. What’s the right answer? Community understanding, or protection of your home and neighborhood? People have a right to be upset when their communities are no longer safe, through no fault of their own.

What is it about our Hispanic community that makes our young men vulnerable to gang recruitment? Is it parenting? Lack of quality jobs? Lack of education? Is it social? Economic? Political? Cultural?

Probably a little bit of everything.

The point I want to make with this post is that this problem is real. It is real in Mexico, it is real in small Central American countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. Those lands are foreign to many, and maybe that’s why there has been little interest in finding and fighting the root causes of these gang problems. Why should we care? But as we can see from recent news, these issues are affecting cities here, in our home, that used to be safe havens from crime.

So what do we do? Do we put the blame on a whole ethnic community and tell them to leave? I think the more reasonable solution, but by no means easier, is to work towards combating the root causes that have created this crisis. Given the current financial situation, I know we can’t go out there and find jobs for everyone, but perhaps supporting small local community organizations that are trying to provide these men with educational and technical skills, even the self esteem to believe they can be more than a gang thug. If you’re asking, why should I support someone who’s here illegally, living off of my tax dollars, I’d say: why not? We’re all human beings. We all deserve a right to earn an honest living. National borders are becoming more porous, not less. Why should we care less about an individual simply because of political boundary lines? I’m not saying we should financially support gang members, I am saying we should help them figure out how to earn a decent living so they don’t think joining a gang is their only option.

I think I’ve gone off topic…but the reality is that they’re all interrelated, and it’s difficult not to lump all of these issues together, because you can’t have one without the other.

What are your thoughts on this issue?