LOS ANGELES (AP) — Many immigrants flooding across the southern border of the U.S. say they're fleeing violent gangs in Central America.
Experts, however, say those gangs are actually a byproduct of U.S. policies in the 1990s that sent many immigrants back to Central America after they had been indoctrinated into gang culture in this country.
The violence they took with them easily took hold and flourished in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — countries with weak, dysfunctional governments.
A few things to know:
WHERE DO CENTRAL AMERICAN GANGS COME FROM?
One study estimated some 350,000 Salvadoran immigrants illegally came to Southern California from 1980 to 1985 while trying to escape civil war and corruption in their home country.
They arrived with few English skills and many settled in poor neighborhoods with strong Mexican- and African-American gangs.
To survive and avoid bullying, they formed gangs such as Mara Salvatruch or joined others such as the 18th Street gang. They committed serious crimes and were sent to prison, where they were further exposed to violent gang culture.
In the 1990s, the U.S. increased deportations of immigrants facing criminal charges, particularly gang members. As many as 1,500 Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran youths were sent back each month to Central America. They arrived with the notoriety of being a Los Angeles gangster.
"There's this huge explosion in all three of these countries of the gangs and the number of gang members, partially because it's the way of street kids getting status and reputation, and partially because it's a way of surviving," said Tom Ward, a USC associate professor who has studied the issue.
WHAT IS THE RELATION BETWEEN THE GANGS AND THE INFLUX OF IMMIGRANTS AT THE U.S BORDER?
Many people fleeing Central America say they are running from violence perpetrated by the gangs. But the migration is also an effort to reunify families.
At least 80 percent of youths stopped at the border have one parent or a close relative already in the United States, said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and senior fellow for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Family members already in the U.S. have saved enough money to pay a smuggler to bring their children across the border so boys won't be forcibly recruited into gangs and daughters won't be subjected to sexual violence.
WHY ARE WE SEEING THIS INFLUX OF IMMIGRANTS, ESPECIALLY CHILDREN, NOW?