The civil war in El Salvador forced countless young people to flee to the ghettoes of Los Angeles, with its violent gangland culture. Now they're bringing it all back home.
"I tell you, man, don't talk America with me. I seen the American way, man - it's fucked up." El Pelon speaks in a lazy, West Coast Latino drawl. He should know. "El Pelon" (or "Baldie") was an 18th Street Los Angeles crack peddler until he was deported. Now he's the boss of Maras 18, the gangland king of San Salvador

El Salvador is a country crippled by its social and political divisions. A bloody 12-year civil war between the guerrillas of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and the civilian-military junta claimed the lives of at least 70,000. Over a million people fled and illegally entered the USA and its poor urban neighbourhoods. Today's Salvadoran youth grew up with American crack culture and gangland violence. But since El Salvador's peace accords were signed in 1992, many of these young men and women have gone back, either deported or repatriated, taking with them all the worst aspects of the American way of life.

Every day, the Salvadoran press screams headlines describing territorial bloodshed caused by baggy-trousered, tattooed youth who speak "Americano" and swagger around with AK-47s, M16s and home-made grenades, the spoils of the civil war. This new conflict has polarised an entire generation as Maras 18 engages in mortal combat with Maras Salvatrucha for possession of "turf" ("maras" is Spanish slang for "gang", "18" comes from 18th Street). The government, politicians, military and police seem little more than onlookers.

Parque Libertad is the stronghold of Maras 18, or Diez y Ocho (18). Its buildings are scarred by bullet-holes and graffiti. Surrounded by faded billboards and peeling political posters, grouped beneath the melancholic statue of Libertad, dozens of skinny youths in low-slung, baggy jeans, Fila trainers and baseball shirts salute each other with clenched fists, their hands talking in complicated gangster code. Bienvenidos. This is the home of Maras 18.

The afternoon heat is like a sledgehammer as Perrico, Flaco, Sniper, who is Pelon's girlfriend, and another woman, Babyface, watch Pelon pull on a fat weed blunt. The main members of Diez y Ocho gather every day at the monument in the west corner of the square to hang out, handle business, and extort a little money from the bus drivers and street hawkers. In the choking bus terminal, their nervous eyes are always on the look-out for confrontation.

Warrior graffiti marks out their patch. Foreheads, necks, lips, torsos and hands are tattooed with the same crude etchings. These tattoos have to be earned. Drimmer, the Diez y Ocho tattooist, uses a machine made from the motor of a stolen Walkman stereo, which is bound to a hypodermic needle and linked with wires to a battery. Every day, he needles an angry design on the skin of one of his homeboys. Eighteen With The Bullet. Fuck The Police. Six Shooter. Made In LA Diez y Ocho.

"Diez y Ocho," explains Pelon. "Six Six Six. Like Satan's number, homes. Like the Devil. Because when I die, man, I go straight to hell. Satan, he don't even have to take the time to look into my soul to see that I'm evil - he just take a look at the numbers on my forehead. You gotta earn these. Scars for the pain, homes," he adds, pointing to his lean, scarified torso.

The retinas of Perrico's eyes are ruptured and haemorrhaging from a brutal beating by four Maras Salvatrucha youths. He raises his shirt to show his tattoos and a bullet wound from a drive-by shooting that passed through his armpit. Flaco is similarly proud of the nine-inch machete scar across his stomach, which has been poorly stitched and looks infected. This is a country where there are 20,000 people to every hospital bed, and kids like this are often returned to the streets with their wounds untreated.

Two blocks south, in Plaza Zorita, another dusty market square, the Maras Salvatrucha carry on in the same way. Most days, one or other gang will cross the border between them and a violent street battle will erupt. The only prize is the proceeds of extortion from San Salvador's dispirited citizenry, but the price is paid in countless young lives. The murder rate in El Salvador is now seven times that of New York's. There are over 8,000 homicides a year. President Armando Calderon Sol has publicly admitted that there were more violent deaths in 1996 than in many years of the civil war.

In all this, the police behave with remarkable circumspection. They are respectful and polite to the gangs, mindful of the thin line they tread. Though they spread-eagle and frisk whole groups of youths in the search for weapons and drugs, it's a futile endeavour, since both are safely stashed around the Parque.

Meanwhile, the abused and the orphaned swell the gangs' numbers every day, in a country where 75 per cent of the population is under 25 and unemployment is said to be as high as 60 per cent. It is estimated that there are currently 30,000 gang members throughout El Salvador.

To cross into their world is never to return. Initiation is in the form of a brutal 18-second beating from your homeboys, being kicked and punched into unconsciousness. Eighteen seconds to join, 18 minutes to leave: that's what they say. "Leave" is a euphemism for being battered to death. The chicas, the girl gang members, must decide between this or having sex with four males in the gang.

The girls start hanging out with the gangs when they're as young as 11 or 12, the age at which they stop school. Once they've joined, they stand shoulder to shoulder with men during the gang fights. As girlfriends and, eventually, mothers, they are accorded a respect and equality unusual in male-dominated Latin societies.

The heart of Maras 18 is in the industrial suburbs of San Salvador, Barrio Amatepeque, a ramshackle slum of corrugated iron and cement blocks perched 300 feet above a sluggish, polluted river, looking out over silos and a petrochemical plant. Mean, skinny dogs battle pigs for the garbage that litters the paths, the children are filthy, and old men sit, smoke and scratch their bellies. On their own turf, the Maras 18 kids smoke blunts, fight and toss coins against the wall.

In a corner of the sun-bleached square, a solemn Virgin Mary, eight-foot- high, is spray-canned onto a wall, "In memory of Joggy" written underneath. This is both Pelon's home and his memorial to his best friend from LA, who was shot three times in the back on a bus in San Salvador by Salvatruchas only weeks after returning home. In this gutted concrete shell, 16 gang members share the floor in one room. Pelon and Sniper, who is carrying his child, occupy an old, burnt mattress in another. The kitchen is a pile of smoking wood and rubbish, smouldering underneath the window. No water, no electricity, no sanitation. Just blackened walls and bare floors.

As the sun gives up and dips behind the slag heaps of the distant factories, candles are lit and the Maras gather to eat chicken and rice off plastic plates, Frisbees and old hubcaps, to drink vodka, smoke a little weed, and talk. Talk about Los Angeles.

"I had good haircut, you know - like you, a businessman," says Pelon, who is 32. "Hey, two, three gold chains, me with diamonds. Like you tha fuckin' boss with that cellular in your pocket. You know what? They gave me 11 years." Of his 14 years in America, six-and-a-half were spent in San Quentin. On release, he was deported. He pulls two cards from the back pocket of his dirty jeans: his Canadian social security card and his California driving licence:

"Take me back, Canada. I say I'm sorry. I'll go to Washington and tell them I'm sorry." He smiles, and takes a sharp, whistling suck of crack smoke through the hollow casing of a plastic pen.

"In LA they got turfs, man. They got areas of the city you know what you're fighting for. Here in San Salvador, they're protecting nothing because they have nothing. In this country, they always looking for someone to blame. Maras don't hold up buses and shoot up cops, they just make a little money. Everyone in El Salvador is a gangster. Even the government. If you got tattoos, you're guilty. Kids are getting killed. `La Sombre Negra' is all over El Salvador. "

La Sombre Negra is the Dark Shadow, a death squad composed, it is rumoured, of ex-police and soldiers dedicated to cleansing society of political and social problems. The Dark Shadow was a sinister feature of El Salvador's civil war. According to the maras, their pick-up trucks with blacked-out windows can still be seen touring the city in the dead of night.

It is true that in El Salvador even the buses are hijacked, and car owners are shot for their wheels. But all crime is not necessarily gang crime. The tragedy of the Maras is that their struggle is really against poverty and homelessness, not amongst themselves. The inner city problems of the USA have no relevance in a Central American society, but Pelon and others like him, who are still haunted by their experiences of America, have brought with them a promise of kinship through gangs.

Jaime Grenado, the deputy police commissioner of San Salvador charged with handling the problem, is trying to get the PNC (Policia Nacional Civil) to work with the Maras. Both gangs now have regular meetings with the PNC. "Most of them still don't even realise that they're here," he says. "They're still on the streets of LA, or they're fighting to just stay alive in the middle of something they don't even understand. This is a problem that threatens our stability as a country and a society starting to learn about peace. When I think of the future, I am sad, because I don't know where it's going to end."

Marco Venegas, a social worker from Chile who has worked with the Maras for the last year and a half, says, "they have seen their country solve its problems through violence, and they will solve theirs with violence." He works with refugees from gang life at the Communidad Santa Cecilia Salvatrucha, where they make a living from selling wood carvings of their graffiti. Marco is also helping to set up libraries at Quezaltepeque and San Marcos prisons in an attempt to give the inmates some sort of education.

A decade ago, this little country, together with Nicaragua and Guatemala, were the focus of America's paranoid foreign policy in Central America. With the eventual signing of peace treaties in all these countries, foreign aid has been gradually scaled down. Now tougher US immigration laws threaten over a million Central Americans with deportation. Such an influx will plunge over a million Salvadorans below the poverty line, and, ironically, the combination of the drugs trade, illegal immigration and criminal violence is now threatening American economic interests. In May, Bill Clinton held a summit meeting with all of the Central American leaders in an attempt to find solutions. The outcome seemed inconclusive.

El Salvador is banking on foreign investment and tourism reviving its economy, but what this means to the Maras is uncertain. Their gang violence is escalating. Only one week after I spoke to him, Pelon was gunned down in Parque Libertad, hit four times in the chest, arm and leg by Maras Salvatrucha youths in a drive-by shooting. He survived, just about