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No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement

No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement

by Tom Diaz, Chris Swecker (Foreword by)

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“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather, much like a good detective, in gathering facts, not myths or urban legends. As a result he has produced an accurate and comprehensive look at a grave and present danger to our society.”
—From the Foreword by Chris Swecker, former Assistant Director of the FBI and former head of the FBI’s Criminal


“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather, much like a good detective, in gathering facts, not myths or urban legends. As a result he has produced an accurate and comprehensive look at a grave and present danger to our society.”
—From the Foreword by Chris Swecker, former Assistant Director of the FBI and former head of the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division


No Boundaries is a disturbing account of what many consider the “next Mafia”—Latino crime gangs. Like the Mafia, these gangs operate an international network, consider violence a routine matter, and defy U.S. law enforcement at every level. Also, the gangs spawn kingpins such as the notorious Nelson Varela Martinez Comandari, who nearly became the first “Latin godfather” in the United States.

Focusing on the Los Angeles–based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang, and the Chicago-based Latin Kings, Tom Diaz describes how neighborhood gangs evolved into extremely brutal, sophisticated criminal enterprises and how local and federal authorities have struggled to suppress them. As he makes clear, the problem of transnational Latino gangs involves complex national and international issues, such as racial tensions, immigration policy, conflict in Latin America, and world economic pressures.

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University of Michigan Press
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5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

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No Boundaries

By Tom Diaz


Copyright © 2009 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11629-4

Chapter One


At precisely 10:30 a.m. on the morning of March 30, 2001, Juan Antonio Martinez Varela, a major general in the Salvadoran Air Force, stepped smartly from his limousine at the foot of the Pentagon's River Entrance. A select honor cordon of U.S. soldiers in dress uniforms stood in two ramrod-straight lines along the broad riser of steps. Martinez Varela, El Salvador's minister of defense, ascended through a blustering early spring rain. When the general was exactly three feet from the U.S. secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, the cordon commander barked an order, and the soldiers snapped a crisp salute in perfect unison. They held their salute until the two ministers of defense entered the pharaonic headquarters of the mightiest military power the world has ever seen. At a strength of somewhat less than fifteen thousand, including uniformed and civilian members, the armed forces of El Salvador are a hair on a gnat on the hide of the U.S. military elephant, some 1.3 million men and women. Nonetheless, protocol is protocol. General Martinez Varela was greeted with a traditional River Entrance ceremony similar, if not identical, to that accorded duringMarch 2001 to other ministerial worthies from Turkey, Georgia, NATO, Great Britain, Germany, and Bulgaria.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to regard the meeting between the two men as a mismatch between a slickly powerful American government wizard and his "little brown brother" from a banana republic. 2 The U.S. military establishment and the ruling elite in El Salvador have been intertwined in a sinuous history that winds back at least until the middle of the last century. At this writing, El Salvador is the only country in Latin America that still has troops in Iraq supporting the American war. Moreover, the Martinez Varela family is one of those that ordinary people speak of in respectful whispers in El Salvador. Its sons, like General Juan Antonio Martinez Varela, have had a more or less continuous grip on the country's most important offices-including the powerful ministry of the interior, the ministry of defense, the leadership of the military academy, presidential secretary, various ambassadorial posts, and more-since the military seized power in the 1930s.

The only public record of the actual meeting is a Pentagon publicity photograph in which General Martinez Varela, with an amiably distinguished mien and only a hint of bemusement, appears to be listening respectfully to a discourse from Secretary Rumsfeld, whose back is to the camera. Their conference at the Pentagon was held almost six months before al Qaeda terrorists crashed an airliner into that very building, so it is doubtful that the agenda included the War on Terror, much less the current war in Iraq. It was also some four years before the FBI created a special national task force that thrust Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13-the violent transnational street gang born out of the misery of refugees from the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s-into the public eye. So the "war on transnational street gangs" was also not a likely topic. Most likely, the two men exchanged the usual pleasantries of military diplomacy. General Martinez Varela no doubt thanked the United States for the military helicopters and other aid recently sent to help El Salvador recover from an earthquake and massive mudslide.

What is almost certain is that there was no discussion of the general's family, most particularly a young man who variously calls himself Nelson Martinez Varela Comandari and Nelson Agustin Varela Comandari, among other names. By whatever name, Nelson Comandari-now thirty years old-was, at the time, an important leader of the transnational MS-13 gang. He was also a fugitive from the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department. In fact, it is highly unlikely that Secretary Rumsfeld or anyone in his vast entourage had ever heard of Nelson Comandari or knew him to be the scion of a long-fractured union between two of El Salvador's most influential families. Nelson was born in 1977 of a marriage between the Varela and the Comandari clans, the latter a transplant from the Palestine of the 1920s and also powerful in El Salvador in its own, less savory way.

While Nelson awaits trial in New York on federal charges of drug trafficking, family members on either side do not wish to discuss publicly the enigmatic criminal career of the product of their union. Nor, it turns out, do senior officials of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice. Public information about Nelson Comandari's criminal case is in lockdown, and I was subtly warned more than once about writing about it. It is no doubt merely coincidental that Nelson's uncle, Franklin Varela, aka Frank Varelli, was one of the most disastrous informants the FBI ever employed. Varelli, or Varela, was at the very heart of a 1980s scandal under the Reagan administration, involving an abortive and embarrassing FBI "counterterrorism" investigation into a left-wing domestic grassroots political group called CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador).

The story of Latino street gangs in the United States begins in Los Angeles, often called the "epicenter" of America's gang problem. An epicenter is "the part of the earth's surface directly above the focus of an earthquake." The earthquake analogy makes some sense, as the rapid growth of violent street gangs in recent years has shaken America. Tremors radiate from the epicenter of an earthquake, and much of the gang problem in America radiates from Los Angeles. Many of the largest and most violent gangs in the United States started in the City of Angels-Latino gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street and black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods. These gangs or the artifacts, attitudes, and lifestyles associated with them spread eastward and brought trouble to cities and towns all over the United States. "If you want to know what's going to happen with Hispanic gangs in your hometown two years from now," a gang expert advised his audience at a 2006 gang summit in Virginia, "find out what's happening now in Los Angeles." That expert is from Scarsdale, New York, an affluent suburb of New York that one might incorrectly think is a cozy, gang-free zone.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) invented the specialized "police gang unit" in the 1980s as an innovation in its long-running guerrilla war with gangs. They ended up calling it the CRASH unit. The acronym stood for "Community Resources against Street Hoodlums," an aptly in-your-face name for a department known for its aggressive policing. If Daryl Gates, a controversial former chief of police, had prevailed, the unit would have been called the TRASH unit, with the tougher acronym standing for "Total Resources against Street Hoodlums" and intended "as a way of demeaning gang activity." But Gates reports that the latter name was considered "unseemly" because "we were dealing with human beings out there." Whatever it may be called, the LAPD gang unit, located at the "epicenter" of gang violence in America, is now the most widely used model for local law enforcement response to gang violence throughout the country.

The epicenter model has a flaw, however. It conjures up an inanimate, Newtonian world governed by the laws of physics, a world in which action and reaction may be more or less predictably charted by formulas: if you apply force X to intersection Y, for example, consequence Z will result. But gangs are not inanimate. They are complex organisms populated by human beings who react to interference in unforeseen ways. Thinking of gangs as organisms invokes mutation and adaptability. It acknowledges the fluidity of their structures and the ambiguity of how best to deal with them. It recognizes the uncertainty of intervention and the possibility of unintended consequences. An examination of the history of MS-13, thought by many to be the most dangerous gang in America today, reveals that unintended and undesirable consequences caused by national policies-including some that, on their face, have nothing to do with gangs-have been the rule, not the exception.

At the dawn of the 1980s, two young psychiatrists at a children's outpatient clinic in Los Angeles, Spencer Eth and William Arroyo, began to see a disturbing pattern of symptoms among a cluster of children referred to them. Their investigation into that cluster would mark an important turning point in the history of child psychiatry. It would also lead one of them to make a strikingly prescient forecast in 1983 about gang violence within the growing Salvadoran community in Los Angeles. Today, that prediction is playing out in big cities and tiny hamlets all over America. It has been confirmed in the explosive growth of MS-13, a criminal street gang that started on the street corners of the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles and is now pandemic in the United States, international in its reach, and barbaric in its violence.

At about the same time that Eth and Arroyo were studying these children, a young infantry officer hundreds of miles away was beginning to work his way through the U.S. Army's toughest training, including the legendary Ranger School. Brian Truchon is the youngest son of a blue-collar family. Raised within strict Roman Catholic values, Truchon had faithfully watched enough of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in the ABC hit television series The F.B.I. to have already decided that his ultimate ambition was to become an FBI agent. It was not a bad fit-tall, dark-haired, carefully spoken, with a clear-eyed and steady gaze, Brian Truchon looks a good bit like Zimbalist, the icon of the ideal FBI agent. In 1985, after completing his army tour, Truchon graduated from the FBI Academy, became an agent, and embarked on the peregrinations that make the career paths of the FBI's brightest talents. He and MS-13 were destined to meet head-on twenty years later.

Dr. Eth recently recalled the specific incident that sparked his interest in studying more closely the backgrounds of the children he was seeing: "I was evaluating a young child who had witnessed his mom's murder, and in trying to understand what happened, I spoke to the police officers who had investigated the crime. 'What a horrible story,' I said to the officers. 'But at least it doesn't happen very often.'" The response of the police officers shocked Eth, now a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and medical director of behavioral health services at St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers in New York: "They said, 'What do you mean? It happens all the time.'" That matter-of-fact response about the nightmare of a child witnessing the murder of a parent determined Dr. Eth, joined later by Dr. Arroyo, to look more closely into what he was seeing among certain children referred to the clinic-those who had witnessed the murder of a parent. (Another colleague, Dr. Robert Pynoos, was interested in similar problems among children who had witnessed the suicide of a parent.) What they saw in these children looked very much like a form of anxiety disorder that-amid some controversy-the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had only just recognized in 1980 as a mental illness. It is called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The hallmark of PTSD is the patient's exposure to a catastrophic trauma, something beyond the range of the ordinary stresses of daily life. Such traumas include wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or terror attacks like those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Events like these, in which life-of the subject or others-is dramatically threatened, may generate a range of symptoms of anxiety among some of the victims or witnesses. (Not everyone exposed to the same trauma will develop PTSD.) Some relive the terrible event, suffering flashbacks, hallucinations, and other disturbing recollections. They may try to block out reminders by avoiding certain places, activities, or people that might cause them to recall the catastrophe. Symptoms include emotional detachment from other people, inability to form loving relationships, sleeplessness, a sense of one's being inevitably doomed and thus excluded from the possibility of a normal future, extreme vigilance and irritability, and the inability to control impulse and anger.

The newly recognized ailment was professionally memorialized in the bible of the American psychiatric profession, the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Curiously, however, the DSM did not include any recognition that PTSD might occur in children. Most professional and popular attention about the newly recognized disorder was directed to Vietnam War veterans. Recognition of the new diagnosis by the APA and the U.S. Veterans Administration meant that veterans diagnosed as suffering from PTSD could get such benefits as disability pensions. The newly recognized ailment replaced the terms shell shock from the World War I and combat fatigue from World War II. Some experts estimated that as many as 1.5 million veterans suffered from it. PTSD began being offered in the courtroom as a defense to a variety of criminal charges, including murder. It was called "the Vietnam defense."

"This was a new condition and there had not been a lot of work on kids in this field at the time," said Dr. Eth. "There were very few articles about childhood trauma, and most of these were wrong. So it is not surprising that there was no reference to children in the DSM."

Not only was there no reference in the DSM, but according to another professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, "it was difficult for professionals to accept that traumatic events, caused by fellow humans, in the lives of children might color and shape their lives for years to come." In brief, many professionals accepted the folk wisdom that children simply "roll with the punches" and glide relatively unscathed through horrors that warp their elders. Eth and Arroyo set out to challenge this Mary Poppinsish view of childhood trauma-the comforting but erroneous perception that a spoonful of sugar and a tousle on the head made the trauma go down in a most harmless way.

The clinic in which these doctors treated children was not a boutique for the pampered progeny of Lotusland. It was part of the twenty-story Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center (LA-USC). Housed in a massive, Stalinesque edifice, LA-USC stands like a fortress athwart the gang-infested Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights neighborhoods of East Los Angeles. The hospital, Dr. Eth notes dryly, was "surrounded by violence, a natural place to study trauma."

In fact, LA-USC lay in the eye of a storm of violence that, as terrible as it was then, was to become even more furious over the coming decade. Between 1984 and 1995, gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County increased fourfold, from 212 to 807. That murderous hurricane was to be driven in part by implacable social and economic forces and in part by evolution among the gangs and within their distinctive form of urban warfare. Children like the young patients that the team was seeing helped feed the storm.

Dr. Arroyo, fluent in Spanish, is now director of children's mental health services for Los Angeles County and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. His language facility gave him a unique insight into the children of an immigrant population that was expanding rapidly in Los Angeles. These were the children of refugees from wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. "You can always tell where the revolution is by our patient population," an LA-USC staff member remarked in 1985.

The doctors in the hospital's emergency room had a name for the grisly fraternity of the maimed and the dying propelled through their doors by the violence of East Los Angeles. They called it the "Knife and Gun Club." The mayhem sometimes burst into their very medical haven-in 1984, a security guard in the emergency room shot to death a patient who reached from a gurney and grabbed another guard's gun. The doctors at LA-USC and other hospitals serving the gang-tortured neighborhoods of Los Angeles were forced to refine their specialties in order to treat the endless torrent of victims. Orthopedic surgeons who once devoted their talents to repairing bones snapped in football games or crushed in automobile crashes now had to adapt their skills to deal with a new class of injuries, the shattering effects of multiple gunshot wounds. As the decade of the 1990s unfolded, the armed services began sending their surgeons to these inner-city hospitals. They were, after all, the best places to learn how to treat wounds that the military doctors would otherwise see only in the urgent confusion of the battlefield.


Excerpted from No Boundaries by Tom Diaz Copyright © 2009 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Tom Diaz is a lawyer, author, and public speaker who conducts research on gun policy and violence for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank. He has covered national security affairs for the Washington Times and served as counsel to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice from 1993 to 1997.

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