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.

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From Preventing “Experiments with Vice” to Bullhorns and Expulsion: Drug Education After the 1970s

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

As late as 1955, a career Narcotics Bureau enforcement official, M.L. Harney, feared drug prevention’s unintended consequences, claiming, “Often the evil warned against is portrayed so attractively, seductively, and voluptuously that the inevitable result would be to attract people to experiment with the vice.” But drug use spread into the suburban areas surrounding urban centers during the 1960s and 1970s anyway, and convinced politicians to admit that prevention needed more support in public school education. Initially, the original investment under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 split funds for prevention with money allocated for education and enforcement relatively evenly.

Above: Drugs Are Like That, an anti-drug education film from 1969, narrated by Anita Bryant

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