Salvadoran Mara Gang Members and Drug Use in the 1980s

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Prince Vlad, a pseudonym the author (a public school teacher by day) uses to protect their identity. For an ongoing research project, they have recorded nearly 150 life histories with men and women from several different Salvadoran and US gangs found across El Salvador. Portions of this research have been presented at national and international conferences.

In the last half of the 1980s, youth groups known popularly as maras emerged as an issue of public concern in El Salvador. Contemporary newspapers, drawing heavily from law enforcement information, raised the alarm and cast the maras as juvenile criminal drug users. In 1988, for example, Diario Latino described the Mara Gallo as a “juvenile band…  dedicating themselves to stealing, rape, and smoking marijuana” [1]. A year later El Diario de Hoy charged that the “juvenile band ‘Mara Chancleta’” was made up of “drug addicts, thieves, and huelepegas [glue sniffers]” [2]. That same year El Mundo warned its readership about a gang of sixty “huelepegas and thieves” known as the Mara Morazán which operated around the San Salvador capital [3].

Mara Children Image
Issue of Diario Latino from September 4, 1994, with an image of young members of a mara street gang. The headline reads, “”Cesta Proposes Solution to Avoid that Glue Being Used as a Drug,”

Media accounts, although superficial and sensational, were grounded on facts. Ricardo, a co-founder of La Morazán, summed up the eight years he spent he with his mara: “I was robbing, I was smoking. I was on glue. I was on drugs. I drank. When it was time to drink I drank. And when not, just the jar of glue, right?” [4].

José similarly framed his six years as a member of the Mara Gallo using terms of drugs and delinquency. “I stole for drugs, for glue, for alcohol, to be around girls. I was in a dark world [mundo tenebroso],” Ernesto said, adding “but it didn’t end there, right?” [5].

Ricardo’s and José’s testimonies are from a collection of interviews I have recorded with nearly 150 male and female active and ex-gang members from El Salvador for a historically grounded study about the origins and evolution of the country’s contemporary gang phenomenon. The subject of drug use was discussed by all narrators. These personal narratives—and my continued research project—reveal intimate details about the causes, consequences, and nature of drug use among Salvadoran gang members across multiple generations.

Audio extract from Ricardo’s interview.
Audio extract from José’s interview.
Members of Mara Gallo Arrested
  “Members of Mara Gallo are Captured in Mejicanos,” Diario Latino October 19, 1988.

This post draws from a subset of fifty-three interviews of former male and female members of nearly a dozen different maras from the 1980s. It details the narcotics that narrators consumed as juveniles and highlights selected aspects of this drug subculture. The personal testimonies show some of the destructive behaviors and activities members were engaged in while intoxicated. It ends with a brief note on the consequences of their childhood drug use.

Drugs were a regular and important feature of the mara subculture in the 1980s. Although not every youth who belonged to or associated with a mara used drugs, most were regularly getting high off of a number of different substances. Drug use was largely recreational, but some maras used drugs for more nefarious purposes.

Of the fifty-three former mara members I interviewed for the project, all but one smoked, inhaled, and/or swallowed drugs as an adolescent. The lone exception was Papá Seco. A former member of La Morazán, he got his nickname because he was “skinny” (seco) and because he often acted like a “father” (papa) to his maras friends, giving them money, letting them borrow his clothes, and scolding them for their drug use and for their delinquent activities [6].

Audio extract from Papá Seco’s interview.

Most of the other narrators first experimented with drugs between the ages of ten and fifteen with a few starting later. All interviewees tried cannabis, tobacco, and alcohol as adolescents. Most became regular users of all three, while others habitually consumed at least one substance. When Rafaela was about sixteen or seventeen, she remembers that her new friend Tonia Loca “showed [her] for the first time to drink beer, to smoke marihuana, to smoke cigarettes.” After a few months with her new friend Rafaela had developed a cannabis affinity that earned her the nickname “La Puro” (The Joint) [7].

Audio extract from Rafaela’s interview.

Nearly three-quarters of narrators sniffed, inhaled, and/or huffed glue, paint thinner, gasoline, or other inexpensive and easily accessible industrial intoxicants. These same substances were popular among the growing number of soiled, disheveled, and glassy-eyed children living on the streets of the San Salvador capital and elsewhere referred to as huelepegas. Ismael, an ex-member of Los Jade and La Morazán, used a race-based metaphor to describe the effect of drugs and recalled that by the time he was twelve-years-old, “you were only going to see me under the influence of glue (empegado). I’m already a little Chinese-eyed (Chino), but with glue I was more Chinese-eyed. That’s why they stuck me with Chino Pega.” He also drank beer and liquor and snorted cocaine, but did not smoke marijuana because he “didn’t like it” [8].

Audio extract from Ismael’s interview.

About one-third of the narrators took pharmaceutical pills (Pastas) like Diazepam, Robinul, or Tritzan, either alone or sometimes accompanied by other drugs. They called someone under the influence of pharmaceutical pills cruzado (crossed). By about age fifteen or sixteen Blanca, once a member of La Morazán, La Gallo, and La Lechuza, began combining pills and alcohol. “We would buy the [pill] strips [and] with a Regia [beer] we would take it… I’d get really crazy” [9].

Audio extract from Blanca’s interview.

Seven narrators mentioned taking three different hallucinogens: hongos (mushrooms) LSD, and Floripondio, the local name for a species of flagrant flowering plant from the genus Brugmansia with leaves containing “intense psychoactive compounds.” Carlos, who once belonged to La Chancleta and La Morazán, said he once drank too much Floripondio tea and “arrived crazy” to his grandmother’s house. Hunched over like a monkey he:

“kept laughing and laughing. ‘What is with you,’ my mother asked. ‘You’re crazy. I’m going to take you to the mental asylum [manicomio]’ ‘No’ I told her, ‘I’m only on drugs [and loco].’ I passed two days in orbit.”

Several narrators mentioned that witnessing or hearing about such episodes deterred them from using these types of drugs [10].

Audio extract from Carlos’s interview.
Cerillos Luz matchbook
Mara members shaved the ends of phosphorous matches and mixed them with alcohol for a stimulant effect.

Interviewees mentioned several other drugs, substances, and cocktails. Some, for example, snorted Polvo de Ángel (Angel Dust) or cocaine, while others smoked a cocaine-cannabis joint called a bañado. Alcohol was also popular—mixed with beer for a submarine or mixed with rubbing alcohol for a Coche Bomba (Car Bomb). The shaved ends of phosphorous matches—the brand Cerillera Luz was popular—added to beer or liquor produced a stimulating effect that kept one dancing by making them “mas peli” (energized).

Not all drug use was recreational. Blanca and two other women, for example, told of attending bailes (dances) to lure men back to their room to rob by offering them sex and drugs.

“We’d take them back to the room. We’d put them to sleep (la dormilona). A beer. We’d put [the pill in there]. He’d fall asleep. We’d rob him, and I left like nothing. Understand me? Because we were a gang that needed to survive. Right? We didn’t work. We simply robbed. We had vices” [11].

Audio extract from Blanca’s interview.

Drugs also facilitated sexual assaults. Four female narrators discussed unknowingly consuming such drug concoctions prior to being raped, and two male narrators acknowledged participating in such assaults.

Gangs Sow Panic Headline
“Gangs Sow Panic,” El Diario de Hoy, September 12, 1988.

Adolescent narcotic use was not without long-term consequences. Most narrators continued using drugs as adults; many adding new and more potent substances, like crack cocaine which entered the Salvadoran drug market in the 1990s.   Nearly two-thirds of narrators later became dependent upon or addicted to alcohol and drugs as adults.  

Decades of destructive drug use only ended after each narrator became involved with a drug treatment program, including twelve-step, religious, government and non-governmental centers.  As Ricardo explained:

I had to go to a group of Alcoholics Anonymous, right? I analyzed it, right? How am I going to change if I don’t have something to help me. Well, I had already experienced wanting to leave my way, by my way of thinking and through my will, and it hadn’t happened. So, I went to join Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ricardo celebrated his twenty-ninth year of sobriety on January 30, 2021.


References

[1] “Capturan en Mejicanos a miembros de ‘Mara Gallo’,” Diario Latino, October 19, 1988.

[2] “Mara ‘Chancleta’ atemoriza a vecinos col. Santa Marta,” El Diario de Hoy, January 30, 1989.

[3] “‘Mara Morazán’ aquietada por rastrillo de la Policía Nacional vuelve a los asaltos,” El Mundo, May 6, 1989.

[4] Ricardo, interview by the author. July 3, 2014. “Andaba vagando. Este iba a dormir en el día a los cines. Andaba robando. Andaba fumando. Andaba con pega. Andaba endrogado. Bebía, Cuando había que beber bebí, y cuando no solo el tarrito de pega ¿veá? Y allí me mantenía en el sector del centro de San Salvador.”

[5] José Ernesto, interview by the author. July 25, 2018. “Delinquía para la droga, para la pega, para el alcohol, para andar con bichas y andaba en un mundo bien tenebroso. Pero no fue hasta allí, ¿vá? Seguí mi auge delincuencial que llegué a convertirme ya en un miembro mas de la mara Gallo. Conocido con el alias de Alf de la Gallo. Tenía para ese entonces ya era conocido aquí en el centro.”

[6] “Estos andaban así [robando] ¿veá? Entonces estos yo siempre les daba dinero a aquellos les ayudaba. Por eso que me pusieron Papá Seco. Porque era como su Papá y el gran seca ¿veá? Inclusive para ir a los bailes les prestaba mi ropa.  Me gustaba que se sintieran bien, que anduvieron así….”

[7] “Rafaela, interview by the author. July 25, 2018. “…esté, y sí anduve en las pandillas de antes. Y recuerdo que comencé con una amiga que le decían, no se si estará viva a saber; le decían Toña Loca. A ella le decían Toña Loca por que a Mariola le decían Toño Loco también, y ella me enseño por primera vez a tomar cerveza, a fumar marihuana, a fumar cigarros…Yo tenia entre dieciséis, diecisiete años.”

[8] Ismael, interview by the author. September 1, 2019. “Vaya, de allí, cuando después de los 86 ya aquí. ya empecé ya con todo a oler pega, jalarle bastante a la coca y cerveza, guaro. Solo que marihuana si no me gustaba. Es que solo empegado me iban a ver. Soy algo chino, pero ya con la pega era mas chino por eso me habían trabado el Chino Pega.”

[9] Blanca, interview by the author. July 1, 2017. “La Diazepam, las Diazepanes y la como se llama esta, comprábamos las tiras con una Regia la tomábamos y a los pasos le echábamos cabeza de ajo, de cabeza de coco me ponía bien loco.”

[10] Carlos, interview by author. July 6, 2017. “Llegue loco donde mi abuela. Esto de aquí se le hincha. Anda uno como que es mono y va de reírme y reírme; y ‘que tienes,’ me dice mi mamá. ‘Vos loco. Te voy a llevar allá al manicomio,” me dijo. ‘No,’ le dije. ‘Si yo solo loco ando,’ le dije yo. Y va de reírme todo lo que me decía ella me daba risa. Pase dos días loco.”

[11] Blanca, interview by author. July 1, 2017. “Me lo llevaba para el hospedaje. Le dábamos dormilona. Una cerveza. Le echábamos eso. Se dormía. Lo desbalijábamos y salía de regreso como que nada, ¿me entiendes? … Porque éramos una pandillita que teníamos que sobrevivir ¿veá? No trabajábamos. Simplemente robábamos. Teníamos vicios hasta decir ya no ¿Me entiendes?

One thought on “Salvadoran Mara Gang Members and Drug Use in the 1980s

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: