Documentary Fruits of War opens the Latino Studies Film Series

The room went quiet as somber images passed across the screen in Rausch Auditorium. Pictures of corpses lying along dirt roads seemed to transport the minds of viewers out of the safe haven of Puget Sound and into El Salvador’s violent streets.

This tortured country is where the documentary film, Fruits of War, begins. The film, which opened the first of the Latino Studies Film Series, tracks the lives of four men—Bullet, Rebel, Weazel and Duke—who immigrated to Los Angeles as children to escape the civil war in El Salvador. Growing up in East Los Angeles in poverty, with little family support and taking abuse from other groups in the area, these men took part in the formation of the major gangs in the area: MS-13 and 18 Street.

When they were deported back to El Salvador for criminal activity, they returned to see their own gang signs painted on buildings and tattooed on the skin of young people living there.

Gang violence from Los Angeles had traveled back to El Salvador on the backs of deported immigrants. The film was gritty and painful, and it ached with the trauma of a country and population ravaged by war and violence. Alex Sanchez (Rebel), who is now the executive director of an organization called Homies Unidos—which works to reform gang members and reduce gang violence in Los Angeles—led a discussion after the film screening and shared his experiences with animated passion.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of these stories is how, even though these men turned their lives around, they were never able to completely escape the demons of their pasts.

Weazel, who had not been a gang member for several years, was recognized on the street, and shot and killed. Sanchez spoke of the dangers that his work entails.

“This work we do in El Salvador can cost you your life … the office has been shot over 25 times, people have been shot in front of the office and a grenade was thrown into the office,” he said.

In fact, one of the services that Homies Unidos offers is tattoo removal for reformed gang members who are preyed upon by other gangs and the police, who, Sanchez said, arrest anyone with gang tattoos.

So how does this apply to Americans? In the spring of 2012, a truce was signed between the gangs in El Salvador, reducing violence about 60 percent and dropping El Salvador from the second- most violent nation in the world to number 24. Sanchez says that this drastic change was brought on by simple dialogue initiated by the gangs themselves.

However, Sanchez says that in America, there are more gangs now than ever before and calls law enforcement and gang policies “failures.”

In 2009, Sanchez was arrested and accused of leading a double life as the leader of MS-13 and Homies Unidos. He won his case and eventually all charges were dropped, but he used his life as an example of how he says United States law enforcement “demonizes” the population of which he is a part.

“The worst thing you can be is an immigrant with a criminal record,” he said.

He also asserted that the way Los Angeles is approaching the gang program is all wrong. He said that although the peace truces in ’92 and ’93 were successful, they only worked because they were initiated by the people in the communities affected by drive-by shootings and gang violence, and that they were only temporary.

He said that current programs work to diffuse conflicts between gangs in the moment, but “you can only do that for so long, but what about tomorrow? What are you replacing that gun with?”

What’s his solution?

Programs that Homies Unidos offers deal with “mental health, counseling, jobs and family unification.”

He also made a plea for better legislation and due process.

The discussion concluded with resounding applause from the audience. Regardless of their political positions, audience members seemed to be deeply engaged in the subject of the presentation.

“It really opens my eyes … I think we’re a lot more corrupt than a lot of people think,” a student said.

One audience member asked how students at Puget Sound could get involved.

“The main thing here is to educate yourself around the issues happening … secondly, figure out what you are going to do for your own community … you can get involved locally,” Sanchez responded.

He said that each city is different and told students, “Don’t think that Homies Unidos is the model that has the solution for everything, you have the solution for the issues in your neighborhood, your block knows more than anybody what it needs.”