If you think violent Latino gangs are a threat only to exotic, ethnic, sepia-toned neighborhoods you are dead flat wrong. Emphasize the “dead” part of that sentence. Gang violence can explode anywhere. And you, gentle reader, can be the victim of a fatal encounter with evil.
The grieving family of 14-year old Tai Lam can attest to that. Lam was shot dead November 1st while riding on a public bus in Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, DC. Two of Lam’s companions were seriously wounded. Their offense appears to have been being at the wrong place at the wrong time — perhaps compounded by having had the temerity to exchange a few innocent words with a couple of gang punksters.
The victims’ friends insist that the shooting was unprovoked. There was no hostile exchange, no warning. Just a sudden explosion of bullets from a handgun into the bus as the shooter stepped off.
Police have arrested three alleged members of the Latino gang MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) in connection with the murder. The “alleged” perpetrators are — but of course, leave us not rush to judgment — “innocent until proven guilty” under law. But the incident is a depressing echo of story after story of Latino gang violence that I document in my forthcoming book — No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, Spring 2009).
The two most violent transnational youth gangs — MS-13 and the 18th Street gang — are present today in almost every state in the union. Their virulent spread within the United States is a casebook study of “blowback,” the unintended bad consequence of what seems at the time like a good idea.
Both gangs were born on the boiling streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Several thousand of their members were deported to Central America throughout the 1990s. Most of these deported gangsters came to the United States as children, refugees from the violent wars that wracked the region during the 1980s. Many of them knew nothing of the culture of their “home” countries and often had no ties there. Some of them did not even speak Spanish. There was only one thing that they knew how to do well — gang bang. They promptly took over entire neighborhoods in these hapless countries, where law enforcement and civil institutions had been corrupted and gravely weakened by long wars.
When El Salvador and Honduras “cracked down” with programs like Mano Dura (“strong hand” or “iron fist”) and Super Mano Dura, the gangsters just took over the prisons. Hooked into major drug trafficking organizations, they have now returned to the United States with a vengeance, controlling routes through which drugs and human beings are trafficked north and money and guns south. Street gangs — black, Latino, and motorcycle gangs — are the primary retail outlets for illicit drugs in the United States today. These are not your grandfather’s gangs, ethnic affiliations built around neighborhoods. These are violent criminal machines.
Ordinary “normal” people look for a motive in violence like that which took the life of Tai Lam. The poor kid must have done something, one thinks, to set these guys off. But the gang world is upside down. Normal is abnormal. Abnormal is normal. Good is evil and evil is good to these ruthless gangsters.
The story of Tai Lam’s shooting reminded me of a similar murder in July 2000. A 22-year old Latino, Mario Rubio-Martinez, was confronted in the parking lot of Culmore Shopping Center in Fairfax County, another suburb of Washington. He was stabbed to death by Jose Rodriguez, a 14-year old MS-13 gangster. Rodriguez did not know Rubio-Martinez. Nor did he exchange fighting words with his victim. He was just out to kill someone in order to make himself look like a big man among his gangster peers. The victim that night could have been anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path:
“It wasn’t robbery. It wasn’t a grudge. It wasn’t some sort of confrontation, said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney John R. Murphy, who said the killing has made Rodriguez a celebrity. “There was only one motive, and that was gaining the defendant status in the world that he made himself a part of.”
(Maria Glod, “Fairfax Gang Member Gets 23 Years in Death; Teenager Stabbed Stranger to Impress Others, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2001. I would like to provide a link, but The Washington Post links pop up one of those idiotic forms that force one to sign up before reading their stories. Grrrrrrr.)
Rodrodriguez –who was born in Houston — was “jumped in” to MS-13 with a beating that lasted 13 seconds. The beating in his case included blows from a crow bar. The wounds in his scalp required 14 staples. His sister was “sexed” in to MS-13 when she was 10 years old. That is, she was required to have sexual intercourse with 13 gang members. The gangsters involved in violent depravity like this do not need “normal” motivation to go off on a shooting rampage. They are deeply, pathologically committed to violence as a way of life.
To what extent is immigration a factor in the spread of gangs? Retired Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Gang Sergeant Richard Valdemar argues that illegal immigration is the very root and branch of the gang problem. I disagree with his ultimate conclusions about immigration. But I certainly respect his experience and his opinions (unlike the knuckle-dragging emissions of crypto-racist anti-immigrant yahoos like that pasty pharaoh of phoniness, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, and the perpetually poisonous pundit Patrick Buchanan). Go here to learn about some of Sgt. Valdemar’s opinions, and here to read some contrary (and to me sounder) views on immigration and crime.
One thing is beyond debate. Latino street gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street gang are potentially a much greater threat than the Italian mafia (or La Cosa Nostra) ever was. Unfortunately, we as a nation are only dribbling out meager resources to deal with the problem at all levels — federal, state, and local. Gang-fighting, intervention, prevention, and enforcement keeps getting bumped down the scale to make room for “national security,” mortgage fraud, and “offender reentry” schemes. Our national strategy has been to dump the gang problem into the laps of law enforcement. We keep our fingers crossed and hope that the cops can keep it out of sight.
They can’t do it alone.
The tragic death of Tai Lam is a sad example of why our feeble approach is a mistake. If we don’t take it to the gangs, they will take it to us.