I live a peaceful life running a small business from my home in Reno, Nevada. My work requires travel and offers me the good fortune of working with international leaders to help them improve their collaboration and communication.
Life’s pretty good and the organizational world that I am immersed in has challenges of growth, revenue generation, and people development—challenges that are exciting and workable.
My peaceful world was shattered by violence recently when a member of my husband’s family in El Salvador was abducted by a gang. This ongoing situation requires confidentiality, and I can’t give many details. It is a tragedy that has rocked me to the core and I am now struggling to understand an underbelly of life that has smacked me in the face.
In the past, I worked with a mental health group that helps gang members and their families in Santa Cruz, California. A friend in the organization once told me that the gangs are growing stronger and are very active from Watsonville, California, all the way south to Colombia.
“Once you’re in a gang,” she said, “you can’t get out. And the gangs are run from prisons connected throughout the U.S.” I knew she was right, but I absorbed this information from a distance.
Now, through this situation, the gangs feel far too close.
It seems like there are circles of life—some that are violent and degraded; others that are uplifting and inspirational—whirling around simultaneously. They wind around each other and don’t touch too often. When they do touch as they have in my life, the complexity and interconnections between the layers of life cause a rupture, an interpenetration of worlds.
When I first studied OS, I was working in an organization that was quite oppressive. I was the diversity officer and I saw the most difficult and challenging systems of oppression and racism. At the time, I read a book that made sense to me, Nothing Personal, Just Business: A Guided Journey into Organizational Darkness, by Howard Stein. Stein used the holocaust as a trope for organizational lay-offs, the brutalization of workers, and what happens to us when people go missing and we don’t know why. I have been thinking about his book lately.
I am asking myself what the organizational trope is for gangs and I cannot find an answer.
What I do understand is that the gang world is not disconnected from the life of privilege that I experience. Gangs move drugs from the south into the north; it is a vibrant and profitable business. Demand for drugs in the U.S. is high. People at many levels are making huge sums of money from the drug trade and, perhaps, through drugs the circles of life interconnect.
Gangs purchase and use weapons from the north, another extremely profitable business. The weapons trade is expanding and generating revenue; an ideal market condition.
As I have struggled to understand what is going on more deeply, I have learned a bit about the gangs in El Salvador, Mexico, and Central America. The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the Mara 18 are Salvadoran gangs that are some of the most violent in the world. They began in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Salvadoran immigrants escaping the civil war in El Salvador were confronted with the Chicano and white gangs of L.A. The Salvadorans had been nursed on the milk of violence and they showed the L.A. gangs how violence can shift entrenched power dynamics.
The civil war in El Salvador that lasted 12 years displaced 20 percent of the population and killed untold thousands. In San Salvador, there is a wall of names of the disappeared. They’re not the names of combatants, just civilians who vanished in the war, and there are 80,000 names on a wall that covers a full city block. The U.S. was involved there, but it was a long time ago. Our weapons and military support helped the Salvadoran government defeat the rebels. El Salvador picked itself up from the wreckage and has tried to create a civil society that can support life and commerce and heal from the wounds of war.
When the civil war in El Salvador ended, there were no gangs in El Salvador. They were formed in L.A., fighting to survive against the existing gangs there. The U.S. needed to stop the violence in L.A. and did so by arresting and deporting Salvadoran gang members. In El Salvador, the MS-13 and Mara 18 found fertile ground for their violent way of life. Parents had fled El Salvador, trying to find work in the U.S., or were abducted and killed during the war.
The displaced young men and women needed a support system and they created their own tribe of colleagues. The gangs created structures and hierarchies. The rules are rigid, violence is merciless, and killing is a way of life. The gangs’ attacks on each other and on people who oppose them have made El Salvador the number one country in the world in juvenile homicides. Their drug use has made them number three. For a small country, those statistics are distressing.
My struggle to understand these gangs led me to a photojournalist, Christian Poveda, who provided a lens that helped me understand the gangs through his films. Poveda studied the Mara 18 in El Salvador and was involved in a year-long film project that aimed to show a more human side of the gangs. He provided the understanding I needed.
“Sixty percent of the gang members are orphans, either because one or two parents have died or because their parents left El Salvador to find work in the U.S.,” Poveda said in his film.
Gang members are usually between the ages of 11 and 25 and have followed a trajectory of increasing violence. The connection with the Zetas, a prime drug cartel in Mexico, has begun to exert more influence. Poveda’s compassion for the Salvadoran people is a poignant reminder of the consequences of choices. In footage filmed shortly before he was killed by gang members in September 2009, Poveda wished that the Salvadoran community would reflect and try to find a different way of living—a way of living that could reduce the violence that permeates Salvadoran society and provide different possibilities.
“During the civil war in El Salvador, 17,000 guerrillas fought the government for 12 years,” Poveda reflected. “The gangs are an army of 15,000. They are fighting with society, but they don’t want to rule.”
How can it be that this world has touched me? I keep reflecting on the situation and trying to understand. Things are interconnected and sometimes we cannot turn away from the dark underbelly of life. Darkness is thrust upon us. Poveda helped me understand the causes of the suffering of the MS-13 and the Mara 18. The pain of the violence and the absence of a solution has brought deep sorrow to my heart.
I keep repeating the Buddhist blessing as a practice: May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness; may all beings be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
How can our organizational work support the diminishment of violence in human systems? I hope that we can diminish systemic violence and that our collective energies may support the roots of happiness and freedom from the roots of suffering.