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Gato and Alex--No Safe Place | The Nation

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Gato and Alex--No Safe Place

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This is the story of Gato and Alex, two Salvadorans who as children became refugees from America's war in their homeland only to become rivals in America's gang war on the streets of Los Angeles. When these two homeboys finally turned their lives toward peace, there was no safe place for them. They were among the New Untouchables, the supposedly incorrigible "superpredators," whose specter justified the war on gangs that has become the worst police scandal in Los Angeles history.

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Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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As a little boy, Gato ("the cat"), who got his eventual street name because of his feline eyes and agility, saw his father shot in the head by a death squad in his front yard in the San Salvador barrio of Modelo. The shooters came in a car with tinted windows and left no explanation. Gato kept a chain of Our Lady given him by his father, which became his only link to his boyhood, because the war made refugees of his mother, his brother and himself. Along with tens of thousands of Salvadorans in the eighties, Gato landed in the Pico-Union immigrant barrio under the corporate towers of LA, now one of the densest urban neighborhoods in America.

As a schoolboy in LA, Gato had an initial distaste for the cholos, the gangbangers and dropouts hanging on the corner. He wanted to get a job and fulfill the traditional immigrant aspiration. It was not to be. Someone from a nearby gang called him a chuntero--an untranslatable putdown of immigrants--and ripped off the chain of Our Lady. Gato wanted to retrieve his father's chain on his own, but his new friends convinced him he required protection--that he needed to belong to a "neighborhood" with "homies" of his own, who would back him up in his quest for the chain. So he was "jumped into" (hazed and initiated into) the 18th Street Gang, then mainly composed of Mexican immigrants. To assert his own identity, Gato tattooed "El Salvador" in big block letters on his chest, larger than the 18th Street symbols. His Mexican homies objected at first, but 18th Street had started to incorporate large numbers of Salvadorans. The new immigrants claimed turf and identity in a hostile new world, escaping from one war zone in El Salvador to another one in America.

It may be impossible to explain the ensuing phase of Gato's life to anyone safely distant from the cycles of urban violence. The superpredator theory is popular; it attributes violence to the genes, for which there is no cure but the superior violence of the state. To locate gang violence in underlying social factors has been discredited by both Republicans and New Democrats. But neither stern punishment nor exhortations to personal responsibility have prevented the violence.

A better way to look at gang violence is through the mirror, as an underclass mimicry of institutional violence, including state, corporate and entertainment violence. Nation-states, including our own, frequently inflict savage punishment to project power and preserve reputation. Not to do so is thought to invite aggression. We engage in arms races and compete to control resources like oil, while gangs assemble weapons to control the drug underground. We fight over flags. They fight over colors. They are entranced by films about Italian, Jewish and Irish gangsters, and the new gangs emulate those movies in the belief that it is the American way. So there is a certain logic to the madness that Gato began to display.

With his new friends Gato found the homeboy who ripped off the chain of Our Lady. "Remember the chuntero?" he asked him, then wounded him with a knife. It was first blood. Not long after, another gang, known as the Crazy Riders, drove into Gato's neighborhood and shot and killed one of his homeboys. Gato shot back, hitting the Crazy Riders in their car. Acting on a human impulse, he pulled the wounded assailants from the vehicle, said they should call 911 and took off running. He was stopped by unsuspecting police and told them to go help the injured. But Gato was identified by a neighborhood resident who had witnessed the shootout and was arrested when he returned to the Pico-Union community weeks later. Convicted of attempted murder, he was sentenced to one of California's toughest prisons, where life was just as dangerous as the street. There his honor was assaulted again. One day Gato found a cellmate masturbating to a photo of Gato's girlfriend, an insult that could not go unpunished. To do nothing would reveal weakness, which would lead to sexual assault or worse. So Gato stabbed him.

Rather than face more time in California's penal colony, Gato took the option of "voluntary departure" and in 1997 was deported to El Salvador. Thus the violence completed its cycle, from Gato's birth in Modelo to his father's execution, forced exodus to LA, the violent defense of his honor by the code of the street, the brutalizing time in California's prison gulag and the deportation back to his original chumpa (shanty).

During the early nineties, Alex Sanchez was also living in Pico-Union. He too was a war refugee from a San Salvador barrio. Unlike Gato, who was fair-skinned and lithe, Alex was dark and powerfully stocky. Alex joined the mara salvatrucha (Salvadoran neighborhood) gang, known as MS, the archrival to 18th Street. Alex was the wild, stray child in a family that included a sister, a brother and two parents, all of them naturalized citizens, who anguished over him. If violence is in the blood, as some believe, why was Alex the antithesis of his brother? For whatever reason, he was the angry one, and his gangbanging got him arrested for carjacking and weapons possession. The truth, according to court records, is that Alex had jumped in a convertible with the key in the ignition but jumped out and fled when the owner appeared. Alex's court-appointed attorney pleaded him to carjacking, a felony, which insured that his next offense would be treated as a felony as well. Had Alex been a white teenager, his offense would have been malicious mischief and the punishment a scolding by his parent. Instead he went to state prison, then took Gato's path of voluntary deportation. Eventually he returned illegally, pulled by a longing to be with his tiny newborn son, Alejito. Alex surprised his family by settling down, staying out of sight, working at odd jobs.

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