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la Vida Loca


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“La Vida Loca” reflects a depressing and hopeless reality. The documentary, by photojournalist and filmmaker Christian Poveda (you can see his bio here), follows some of the members of ''la dieciocho,'' the so-called 18th Street gang in a poor San Salvador neighborhood.

“Little One” is a 19-year-old mother with an enormous "18," reflecting her membership in the 18th Street gang, tattooed on her face. The numbers stretch from above her eyebrows down onto her cheeks.

“Moreno” is a 25-year-old male member of the same gang who works in a local bakery set up by a nonprofit group called Homies Unidos. The bakery eventually folds when its owner is arrested and sentenced to 16 years in jail on homicide charges.

And ``Wizard,'' another young mother and gang member, who lost her eye in a fight, is followed by Poveda during a long series of medical consultations and operations to fit her with a replacement glass eye. She’s shot and killed before the end of the film.

Stories like that, punctuated with funerals attended by silent, heavily tattooed male gang members and wailing young wives, mothers and girlfriends, make up the sum of “La Vida Loca.”

The nature of their existence meant that Poveda had to spread his camera lens wide in the 16 months he spent shooting the film.

“I knew right from the start that I couldn't film just one character,” he explains during an interview on a trip to Mexico last month when “La Vida Loca” was part of the Guadalajara International Film Festival.

“Firstly, they get bored after a couple of months and don't want to be filmed anymore. Or two, they get put in jail, or they get killed.”

That's a reality that Poveda feels a lot of Americans don’t know about and should.

“Americans have to realize how much damage the U.S. has done to this region,” he says.

Poveda, who lives in San Salvador and has worked as a photojournalist covering the country before, during and after the 12-year-long civil war that began in 1980, is talking from experience.

The current situation in El Salvador is one of the less-inspiring examples of the long-standing social and economic ties between the United States and Latin American countries, he argues.

Gangs were formed by Salvadorans living on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. When the peace accords that ended the civil war were signed in El Salvador in the early 1990s, huge numbers of gang members returned to the country, some of them by choice but most of them through deportation by U.S. authorities. Many were sent back after completing prison sentences.

As Rocky Delgadillo, a Los Angeles city attorney, notes in this column for the L.A. Times, “this only exacerbated the problem, spreading gangs like a virus until they grew into transnational `super-gangs'.”

Poverty and a lack of opportunities in post-war El Salvador made the country a ripe recruiting ground.

But gangs did exist in El Salvador before that. Tracy Wilkinson noted in her 1994 report on the issue for the L.A. Times:

“Gangs have existed in El Salvador since the late 1950s, but until recently they were more likely to be associated with schools and would fight each other over things like basketball games, perhaps over territory, but not over business interests or crime franchises.

The student gangs were not inclined to attack outsiders, and their weapons usually were nothing more deadly than knives. The war between leftist guerrillas and U.S.-backed armies in the 1980s made these gangs more violent as it made society more violent.”

However, it was after the United States began implementing their deportation policy in the 1990s that the groups grew into the super-gangs that they are today, with cliques all the way through Central America and Mexico as well as, of course, a huge presence in the U.S.

Speaking at the Mexico City premiere of “La Vida Loca” last month, Poveda said officials estimate there are 15,000 gang members in El Salvador; 14,000 in Guatemala; 35,000 in Honduras; and 5,000 in Mexico.

The biggest population of gang members still resides in the U.S., with an estimated 70,000 living there, he said.

As far as Poveda is concerned, the vast majority of the gang members in El Salvador are “victims of society, of our society. " A desperate reaction to a desperate situation.

Many would disagree. The brutally violent groups have been connected with organized crime and other illegal activities. Here in Mexico, they’re one of the parties blamed for the high levels of violent attacks and robberies against migrants traveling from Central America and heading north to the United States.

But Poveda says that their big, bad image makes them an easy target and a convenient scapegoat for crimes difficult for governments to control. He also differentiates between gang members living in the United States and those living in El Salvador.

“They live in completely different economic situations,” he says.

“It’s not the same thing selling drugs in the central market of San Salvador as it is selling drugs on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles,” he says, referring to the kind of profits gang members make in the two places.

When asked if he can see a day when the gangs cease to exist, Poveda says that the destruction of the networks is not the point.

“If you want to improve things, the first thing to know is that it’s not about making the gangs disappear. They need to be given another focus.”

At the time of interviewing Poveda, he had yet to secure a distribution deal for "La Vida Loca" in the U.S. The documentary opens on cinema screens here in Mexico on May 15.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City


movie trailer :

Controversial French filmmaker Christian Poveda shot dead in El Salvador


A French filmmaker whose documentary about a violent street gang in El Salvador provoked controversy earlier this year has been found shot in the head.

The body of Christian Poveda, 52, was discovered in a car in Tonacatepeque, a poor rural area 10 miles outside the capital San Salvador.

Police say that Poveda was driving back from filming in La Campanera, an overcrowded ghetto that is a stronghold of the Mara 18 gang, when he was apparently ambushed.

Gangsters are suspected to be behind the killing, which has provoked anger and revulsion. Mauricio Funes, the former Marxist guerrilla who became President of El Salvador in June, spoke of his shock in a statement last night and ordered a full investigation.

Manuel Melgar, the public safety minister, deplored the “repugnant and reproachable criminal act" and vowed that police would work tirelessly to find Poveda’s killers.

La Vida Loca (Crazy Life), Poveda's latest film, focused on the hopeless and brutal lives of various fantastically tattooed members of Mara 18.

Several of the gangsters were killed or jailed during filming and the documentary records disturbing scenes of gang members gunned down in the streets, relatives crying over coffins and young female gangsters with tattooed faces.

The film is critical of the heavy police crackdown on gang members, which Poveda felt failed to take account of the hopeless poverty and personal tragedy that drive young Salvadorans to turn to crime.

“We have to understand why a 12- or 13-year-old child joins a gang and gives his life to it,” Poveda said in a recent interview with El Faro, a Salvadoran online newspaper.

“Children who have terrible family problems, or come from poor families who don’t have time to take care of their children.”

The film concedes that gangs spread terror, but also describes the young gang members as captivating and as representative of the breakdown of family life in El Salvador.

The Mara 18 and rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs form part of a huge criminal network that runs down through Central America from Los Angeles, where there is a large community of Salvadoran expats.

Authorities estimate there could be as many as 30,000 so-called mareros, who sell drugs, rob illegal migrants or extort money from businesses in the tiny, impoverished country of 5.7 million people.

Many of the gangsters were deported from the United States after serving jail terms there. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.

Poveda first came to El Salvador in the early 1980s to cover the decade-long civil war as a photographer for Time magazine. He also reported from wars in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries.

He returned to El Salvador in the 1990s and dedicated himself to documentary work, concentrating on Salvadoran gangs.


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