A friend from church last year purchased an abandoned, ramshackle corner tavern up the street from our house. Allan and his wife Julie, both hippie types in their late thirties, are deeply religious people who make their living conserving old houses in iffy neighborhoods. And yet Allan would never identify himself as a conservative. And that, I might suggest, is conservatism’s problem in a nutshell. Anyway, Allan’s hope is that our neighborhood will soon gentrify and his investment pay off. As with most investments, his is a huge gamble.
Allan, who originally hails from Chicago, is the kind of person you want in your parish, your neighborhood, and your city. This week, however, Allan’s building was vandalized by the kind of people you distinctly do not want in your city. The vandals tagged Allan’s building and a nearby hipster nightclub with gang graffiti: “Surtown 13.” Sur being Spanish for south. Thirteen being the name of the most dangerous gang in the world: Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. Local gangs where thus put on notice. (I am told we have local gangs, but nowadays when everyone dresses and acts like a gangster it is impossible to tell who is and who is not in a gang.)
Movies, television shows, the Crips, the Bloods, gangsta rap, the band Toto, pretty much all of the worst things in America have come from Los Angeles. No surprise, then, that Mara Salvatrucha originated in L.A. MS-13 began as a group of right-wing Salvadoran political refugees from the 1980s’ civil wars organized to protect their countrymen from African-American gangs. They soon branched out to take on illegal drug and weapons sales. It is estimated there are some 10,000 MS-13 members throughout 42 states. Including, apparently, some in my neighborhood.
I live two or three blocks from Little Mexico, a strip of authentic Mexican restaurants, clothing stores, groceries, and bakeries just south of downtown St. Louis. The wife and I always feel safe strolling through Little Mexico. It is the one part of our neighborhood where we do feel safe. In my experience, the local Latinos are friendly, hardworking people, which can be something of a rarity here in the inner-city.
At the same time, if you follow the news, you know that Mexican drug trafficking organizations are an increasing presence here, and are now the principal movers and wholesale distributors of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana to the area. Nor is MS-13 simply a drug distributor. Elsewhere in the country gang members commonly engage in murder, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, immigration offenses, kidnapping, carjackings, auto thefts and vandalism. No doubt gang leaders will attempt to recruit from among the local Latino population. Youths from broken homes and the undocumented who are alienated from the mainstream culture will be ripe for the picking.
The tragedy is that many Latinos have come to our city searching for a better life. They hoped to leave the drugs and gangs and poverty behind them. And many did manage to find a better life. Now, the scourge of MS-13 has found them here and threatens not only their stable communities, but my neighborhood as well.
MIDDLE CLASS FOLKS often have two responses to street gangs and the crime they foster: arm yourself or flee the city. St. Louis has a population of 342,000 people. According to FBI statistics, there are around 380,000 guns here — many of these in the hands of gang members. The idea that I am going to shoot it out with drug gangs is plain silly. White flight is the standard middle-class response, though it is hardly a solution. Besides, it is white suburbanites who are, to a large extent, the cause of the problem. Everyday their teenage sons drive to my neighborhood and others like it to purchase heroin and cocaine. I don’t know how many times I have come home at lunch to find a drug deal going down in front of my house, the consumers being, from the looks of them and the prep school stickers affixed to their mommy’s Honda Accord, frat boys from the exburbs.
Here in my neighborhood you have three kinds of people. Those, like Allan and Julie, who are working to build a healthy neighborhood; those, like the gangsters and the suburban drug users, who seek to destroy everything in exchange for money or a cheap high; and — by far the majority — those who just don’t give a damn.
There is an old saying: “For evil to triumph let good men do nothing.” Evil and apathy, it would seem, are two sides of the same coin.