Space of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador

Space of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador

by Elana Zilberg

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Space of Detention is a powerful ethnographic account and spatial analysis of the “transnational gang crisis” between the United States and El Salvador. Elana Zilberg seeks to understand how this phenomenon became an issue of central concern for national and regional security, and how La Mara Salvatrucha, a gang founded by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, came to symbolize the “gang crime–terrorism continuum.” She follows Salvadoran immigrants raised in Los Angeles, who identify as—or are alleged to be—gang members and who are deported back to El Salvador after their incarceration in the United States. Analyzing zero-tolerance gang-abatement strategies in both countries, Zilberg shows that these measures help to produce the very transnational violence and undocumented migration that they are intended to suppress. She argues that the contemporary fixation with Latino immigrant and Salvadoran street gangs, while in part a product of media hype, must also be understood in relation to the longer history of U.S. involvement in Central America, the processes of neoliberalism and globalization, and the intersection of immigration, criminal, and antiterrorist law. These forces combine to produce what Zilberg terms “neoliberal securityscapes.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822347309
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/07/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Elana Zilberg is Associate Professor of Communication and Associate Director of the Center for Global California Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

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Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4730-9

Chapter One


Where do we put the Chicano fathers who forced their mischievous children to return stolen articles to a Sears store in East Los Angeles? The article in US News and World Report on the riots skipped that piece of drama, opting instead for a picture of a desperate Salvadoran, loaded with food and detergent, standing in a grocery store. The caption tries to say enough: Latino looter. —Ruben Navarrette Jr. "Should Latinos Support Curbs on Immigrants?"

In the film Falling Down (1993) the main character, William "D-Fens" Foster, an unemployed Anglo American who is angry and about to get even, is depicted sitting with his briefcase on graffiti-covered cement stairs that once served as an entryway to a structure that is no longer there. From the vantage of this ruin, he surveys the skyline of downtown Los Angeles through a hole in the sole of one of his shoes, then turns to look through the want ads in the newspaper he is carrying. As he tears off some of the paper to cover the hole in his shoe, a shadow emerges on the ground in front of him. Two Chicano gang members approach him and begin to circle the cement structure.

LATINO GANG MEMBER 1 [LGM1]: What you doing mister?

D-FENS [DF]: Nothing.

LGM1: Yes you are. You're trespassing on private property. You're loitering too, man.

LGM2: That's right. You're loitering too.

DF: I didn't see any signs.

LGM2: What you call that? [He points to the gang taggings on the cement structure.]

DF: Graffiti?

LGM1: No, man, that's not fucking graffiti. That's a sign.

LGM2: He can't read it, man.

LGM1: I'll read it for you. It says, "This is fucking private property. No fucking trespassing." This means fucking you.

DF: It says all that?

LGM2: Yeah.

DF: Well, maybe if you wrote it in fucking English, I could fucking understand it.

LGM2: Thinks he's being funny.

LGM1: I'm not laughing.

LGM2: I'm not either.

DF: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Hold it. Hold it, fellas. We're getting off on the wrong foot here. OK. Um. This is a gangland thing, isn't it? We're having a, a territorial dispute, hmm? I mean, I've wandered into your pissing ground, or whatever the damn this is, and you've taken offense at my presence. I can understand that. I wouldn't want you people in my backyard either.

Why begin the history of the production of the "transnational gang crisis" with media coverage of and reflection upon the 1992 Los Angeles riots and Hollywood's mediation of the racial, social, and economic tensions brought to the fore by those riots? To be sure, both examples bring into view images of mischievous youth and violent gang members. But it is to the other two figures, the Latino looter and the unemployed Anglo American, that I wish to draw attention. The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate figures involves more than the same contemporary moment or the empirical fact of the riots. It also invokes a prior historical connection. Together, they bring into view Los Angeles at the end of the twentieth century and its reconfiguration in the aftermath of the cold war and the Salvadoran civil war as funded by the United States.

Let's accept, for the moment, the more sympathetic depictions of the Latino looter as a Salvadoran refugee desperate for basic necessities, and the angry American as a middle-class white guy who has recently lost his job to the downsizing of the defense industry and who has become an exile in his own country. Building on the notions of contrapuntal histories and complex patterns of cultural interagency, both the Salvadoran refugee and the unemployed Anglo American defense worker live within, albeit at different ends of, the same global and local processes. Although they occupy different levels of displacement at the wane of the cold war, both are migrants whose everyday movements—life paths through time and space—have been disrupted, the Salvadoran's by militarization and the Anglo American's by demilitarization. Both journeys are produced and undone by the instrumental spatiality of the cold war and the defense industry.

The journeys also mark a particular historical juncture when the primary threat to national security is no longer encoded in communism but rather in the intersection of criminality and immigration. This moment marks a new stage in the production of the securityscapes in and between the United States and El Salvador. The project of law enforcement (by police and immigration officers) now has primacy over global defense (by the military and weapon manufacturers). The triumphant project "to make the world safe for democracy" gives way to the more timely project "to protect and to serve." This shift signals the subsequent convergence of immigration and criminal law that will prove so central to the production of the "transnational gang crisis."

The Latino Looter

When the movie cameras on the set of Falling Down shut down during the riots, those of the nightly local news were working overtime to capture and give name to what was unfolding in the streets of central Los Angeles (including downtown, South Central Los Angeles, Pico Union, Koreatown, and Hollywood) that were, for the moment, off limits to the movie's cast and crew. The sections following offer a composite of that coverage as drawn from fourteen hours of home-taped video footage of the local news coverage of the riots. The local viewer who taped the footage during the riots employed the typical contemporary viewing practice of surfing between channels. The resulting video footage of the riots, which is broken up absurdly and jarringly by commercial advertising and sitcoms, actually comes close to the viewing experience of many who frantically shifted from channel to channel to try to make sense of the events unfolding around them. Television viewers, who were taken out into the streets and up into the air with the media, were encouraged to see from the point of view of the media, reporters, and news anchors. Not only was this coverage framed in a law-and-order narrative but also as a direct appeal and demand for the deployment of law enforcement. What follows is my composite of excerpts from that coverage, compiled after the event and with a narrative frame not available to the viewer at the time of watching.


The not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating case was pronounced less than two hours ago. The television set is tuned to local live coverage of the Los Angeles riots. The screen switches from one image to another and from one channel to another. The action unfolds through this series of images: First, on the ground in front of Los Angeles Police Department's headquarters (LAPD), a peaceful political demonstration turns into a violent flame-and rock-throwing protest. Next, the camera soars high above this scene, travels several miles south to the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the famous flash point of the riots. This is the corner where Reginald Denny is soon to be pulled from his truck and severely beaten by an angry mob in an eerie replay of the brutal beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers. National networks already have crews covering the unfolding events out of the First American Methodist Church in South Central Los Angeles, and from the intersection of Florence and Normandie. A panoramic view of the geographic path of the riots is being fed unedited by Skycam 5 Live, Telecopter 4, and Newscopter 7, among others. These newscopters fly over one burning shopping center after another, while their mobile newscasters shout out a running commentary over the whir of the propellers: "I can see one, two, three ... eleven, twelve ... I can see about fifteen fires from this location."

The camera pans across the monotonous grid of the asphalt parking lots bordering commercial establishments yet to be torched. The viewer's attention is drawn to small groups of people "just walking into the Payless [the Thrifty, TJ Maxx, the Korean liquor store, the Boys Market, the Pep Boys, the Circuit City] ... and taking whatever they want." Some of them are even stopping to try things on for size ... and others actually leave to fill their cars and then come back in for more merchandise. "There're no police down there ... There is no police presence at all." The media has deployed its forces where the police have not, and between the newscopters in the sky and the cameras on the ground, the viewer has a near panopticon view of these activities—rioting and looting. Inside the newsroom, far away from the scene, the anchormen and women comment upon the "this" (hand gesture)—the events that have not yet been named. They are unaware perhaps of the power that they will have, not only in representing but also in producing the "this" as riots and as media spectacle.

Newscasters, groping for words, struggle to frame and to contain the raw footage within the law-and-order narrative generally employed for nightly crime news. This is all the more ironic, and indeed necessary, given the noticeable and curious absence of police on the streets for the first several hours of the riots. Early on, the fire captains deploy the newscopters to scan the horizon for new fires. Fighting alongside firefighters in this way, the newscasters begin to speak for them and, indeed, for everyone. The "fire officials are just looking so disgusted and so angry—something that everyone is feeling right now." Without recourse to the routine techniques of editing, the language seeping in from the streets through the television is rough, heated, and filled with expletives. The news anchors are clearly uncomfortable with the emotional and political tone of their footage and with their relatively unmediated engagement with the streets. Disconcerted, they clear their throats to apologize to the viewing public for the "foul language" over which they "have no control."

The audience is told that the "this" is "senseless violence." To the images of everyday folks darting in and out of the stores, the newscasters explain: "These people are gangbangers, thugs, and hooligans" who "have nothing to do with what took place in the Simi Valley courtroom." An African American man shouts at the camera, with his arms full of stolen goods, "We're doing this for Rodney." The news anchors respond, "These people are absolute criminals, lawless people who have chosen to take advantage of a terrible situation." A young black woman shouts with tears of anger, "The system doesn't care about us black people ... Black people have no rights in this country ... This is about the extinction of the black male." The news anchor turns away from the footage, toward his coanchor, and states: "We have, after all, a system of justice in this country, and it's called being judged by your peers. That means that the four officers were judged by what were said to be twelve of their peers, and the decision was rendered, and that's the way it works." The cameras turn back to the crowd scenes, "These people have absolutely no fear of us or the authorities. There's a traffic jam of looters here." In comes more aerial feed from the newscopters, "There's no border to it anymore...."

"Where are the police? There are no police down there." Reports come in that chief of police, Daryl Gates, is at a fund-raiser in the exclusive Westside neighborhood of Bel Air. "You've got to wonder," responds the newscaster, not wanting to judge the authorities or police too quickly. Still the insinuations grow. "Why the police have not been deployed.... Why it's taking so long...." It is not until the next day that the business of newsmaking shifts to normal. Television cameras take their positions at a press conference in front of the talking heads of Los Angeles leadership, Daryl Gates included. Questions fly about the delayed police response and whether the National Guard will be brought in. The media begins to frame the action in more insidious ways. Reporters begin to infer culpability and cause and effect with seemingly innocent speculations such as, "I don't want to make any comments about the group we see here in front of us, but, um, coincidentally, that's when it [the damage to Parker Center] started."

Once the police are deployed, on this second day of the riots, the cameras on the ground relinquish the frontline to the police and retake their positions behind that police line. At the same time, however, the cameras in the sky continue to film what is not visible to the police in front: looters coming into the buildings from the back. The news coverage is increasingly punctuated with remarks such as: "One of our helicopters just spotted someone coming out of a flaming mini-mall, and they followed him to his residence, and the police are now headed in that direction" or "He was in full view [of us] ... I think that video is going to surface somewhere—in court and with the police no doubt." As the riots progress, the newscast audio begins to mix intermittently with the interference of the police audio.

Finally, the police, along with the assistance of the National Guard and its armored tanks, start taking back control of the streets. While in the earlier footage, people came in and out of the stores with seeming impunity, now the streets were beginning to fill with other images: lines of black and brown bodies lying face down (or in a "prone-out" position) with their hands cuffed behind their backs. By this time, the television crews have resumed their roles as observers, crouching behind the black-and-white squad cars of the Los Angeles Police Department.

But something new has entered this frame. Just beyond the police cars is a sport utility vehicle belonging to the U.S. Border Patrol. Not far up the street, at Vermont and Third, the parking lot of a Vons supermarket is now filled with an entourage of Immigration and Naturalization Services buses—"waiting to give these folks a free ride back to [their] country."


With the riots unfolding onscreen, the KABC reporter Linda Mour is back in the television studio discussing with her anchor whether or not the looters are "illegal aliens." In KABC's rendition of the riots, Latinos quickly become interchangeable with illegal aliens. As the Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg later mused: "Perhaps Mour was able to identify them as illegal because some of the looters had that stamped on their foreheads. Or—a much better bet—perhaps both she and [news anchor] Greene were predisposed to believe that illegal immigrants automatically commit crimes. If so, their predisposition was transmitted across the airwave as fact." It is precisely at this point that the association between the terms looter, Latino, and illegal is sealed in the viewer's imaginary as the Latino looter. The Latino looter becomes a packed sign through which immigration from the southern border becomes an increasingly dominant narrative frame for explaining the riots in much of the subsequent local media coverage and some of the national coverage.

While local news channels babble on in the moralizing law-and-order narrative of nightly crime news, the more liberal, analytical national news coverage frames the event within a "Watts II" paradigm and thus racializes the event as black. For instance, Ted Koppel of the ABC news show Nightline locates his television coverage out of the First American Methodist Church in South Central Los Angeles, and at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Ted Koppel's forays into South Central Los Angeles and his town meeting inside that venerable African American institution from the civil rights era casts African Americans as "event insiders." Koppel frames the events as a consequence of the Rodney King verdict only, thereby ignoring other causes for the rioting: namely, the impact of post-Fordist structural adjustment programs and the globalization of inner-city communities, along with the unacknowledged fact that Latinos were covictims of racist policing. It is certainly true that the media, particularly at the national level, took the 1992 riots as time to reflect on what had indeed been and not been achieved with race relations since 1965. But the riot coverage rendered Latinos "voiceless, but not invisible," and it could not blot out the obvious difference between Watts and 1992—"the appearance of Latinos on TV screens as looters." Neither could it suppress scenes like the one that was featured in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times about a week after the riots died down. Writing from the same church from which Ted Koppel conducted his riot coverage, Niels Frenzen, a local immigration attorney and law professor, and Frank Acosta, then director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), offered a very different perspective: "The sight of one our city's leading African-American churches converting its basement meeting room into a temporary shelter for displaced people who were majority Latino and mono-lingual Spanish speaking was on the one hand, striking evidence that the face of our city has been changed irrevocably, and on the other hand, a powerful symbol of the common issues and problems which tie together the Latino, African and Asian-American communities." That is, the riot revealed that the historically African American area of South Central Los Angeles—the epicenter of the Watts riots in 1965—was majority Latino by 1992. More than that, the rioting very quickly spread beyond even those geographic borders to neighborhoods like Pico Union, Koreatown, and East Hollywood. These neighborhoods were also now heavily populated by Mexican and Central American immigrants. The riot coverage thus may have "rendered Latinos voiceless," but not invisible. It could not blot out, as pointedly stated above, "the obvious difference between Watts and 1992—the appearance of Latinos on TV screens as looters."


Excerpted from SPACE OF DETENTION by ELANA ZILBERG Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Neoliberal Securityscapes 1

Chronology The Divided Bnds of Peace 25

Part I Los Angeles

1 Latino Looter: Law of Place 53

2 Street Hoodlum: Topographic Reform 75

3 Criminal Cop: Spatial Justice 101

Part II San Salvador

4 Criminal Deportee: Transnational Space 129

5 Gang Peace Activist: The Space of Civil Society 151

6 Soldier Cop: Remilitarized Space 177

Part III A Disturbance In Time And Space

7 The Gang-Crime-Terrorism Continuum 207

Conclusion Hall of Mirrors 233

Epilogue Impressions from a Political Present 241

Acknowledgments 251

Notes 259

Bibliography 301

Index 333

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