Monday, September 21, 2009

On Salvadoran Gangs and the death of Filmmaker Christian Poveda

Josué Rojas, a San Franciscan Salvadoran-American, examines the circumstances surrounding the recent death of filmmaker and photographer Christian Poveda, who died documenting the migration of American gang culture to the youth of El Salvador.  Surveying the history of this migration, Rojas echos Poveda's mission in seeking to understand and document, rather than sensationalize,the rise of gang culture among Salvadoran youth.  

San Salvador––Filmmaker and photographer Christian Poveda, 54, was found dead with four gunshots in the face on Wednesday, September 1st, on a road near La Campanera, a district in Soyapango near San Salvador. Poveda was familiar with the impoverished canton (shanty), as he had spent more than a year documenting gang life there. A filmmaker and community artist myself, I’ve worked in the area and have covered the topic. Though I’ve lost many colleagues and contacts, hearing this news gave me chills.

Poveda was embedded, following young members of the Mara 18 gang for a year and a half in order to make the film La Vida Loca, or the Crazy Life. As a result, Poveda achieved what other films on Salvadoran “maras” failed to include: an intimate portrayal. This is no easy task, not to mention hazardous.

The veteran journalist was no stranger to close encounters with violence. Since the late 1970s he documented wars across the Middle East and across Latin America. He covered the Salvadoran civil war for TIME magazine early in the 80s. In the 90s Poveda returned to El Salvador to cover one of the outcomes of that country's civil war: gangs––a problem that has reached disproportionate levels in the country and region. Gangs are also highly misunderstood and sensationalized. His images on gangs are some of the first and best on the subject. 

"Gangs, for me, are an extension of the work I did in the 80's during the war. El Salvador is the country I was most involved in," Poveda told in 2007.

It’s a complicated story, accompanied by an image both fascinating and disturbing: young people deported from the US to El Salvador, who brought the seed of Los Angeles gang culture to fertile ground. 

During the 90s, post-war El Salvador was in shambles with a weak physical and economic infrastructure ––and an unemployment rate that was through the roof. The country’s social fabric suffered due to the loss of life of nearly 80,000 Salvadorans. Under these conditions, many young people were left without any support–––war left children orphaned by the thousands, and according to experts, the dire economic conditions compounded a cultural violence that was experienced by the population at large and even more by child soldiers. 

The emerging generation attempted to heal from the trauma of growing up knowing nothing but war. Gangs, an incarnation of the disintegration of the Salvadoran family, proved appealing to young people abandoned, either by war or their parents' migration. These kids were alone in the world––I could not imagine a more fertile ground for gangs. 

By 2003, gangs ran rampant, the population was terrorized, and authorities developed Mano Dura tactics–– heavy-handed, zero-tolerance repressive measures that, in time, would prove to agitate the problem rather than help it. National Security budgets have more than tripled; an industry has been built around the gangs. Media has had a field day demonizing them. Governments found an ideal enemy and scapegoat. To put it simply, what terrorism occupies in the American psyche is what gangs occupy in the Central American mind.

Not disregarding tendencies towards violence and extortion, gang members live in fear, and are often exploited themselves. They are targets of death squads (vigilante groups used for fear and social cleansing during the war). Extrajudicial killings of gang members are the norm, and according to a report recently released by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), "gang members in particular are victims of these killings." The WOLA report also states, "Sensationalist media coverage of the gangs contributes to a climate of fear in which the threat of gangs, though serious, is over-emphasized." To make a film on this overexposed, highly debated subject is to dance on a redundant, if not dangerous, fence.

Poveda hoped his film would shed new light on the situation, possibly humanizing young people caught up in the gang life: "The gang problem will not be resolved by policies that repress young people," he told CNN en Español earlier this year. He told that, as he saw it, gangs were “a direct consequence of the war, and of the conditions that led to it.” Poveda’s intentions were to, as he put it, “denounce” the socioeconomic realities he witnessed–– his film was a close-up portrait of young and violent lives. It had the potential to generate sympathy, but also disgust and fear. 

Film screenings at festivals in Europe, Guadalajara, San Sebastian and Morelia were successful in bringing the project both acclaim and money, and the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang) knew this. According to some gang members, there were some among them who expressed feeling duped. Though the film was achieving notoriety, gang members were seeing no signs of its benefits.

In one sense, Poveda was a victim of his film's success. Not long after being completed, the film was pirated. Bootleg copies could be bought in outdoor markets and DVD stands for one US dollar. Copies quickly spread across El Salvador. The Mara 18 took notice and a tax was imposed. Edgar Romero, a fellow photojournalist, told that " it was sold for one dollar per copy and the Mara 18 added the tax of an additional 3 dollars," bringing the price up to 4 US dollars. 

"The rumor ran that Poveda was benefiting from the film," stated Romero. Authorities aren’t sure who killed Poveda. They’ve arrested a handful of alleged gang members and even a police officer.

In March of this year, I was in El Salvador doing research on gangs for the upcoming play “Las Heridas del Izote” or “The wounds of the yucca flower”–––a play based on the stories of gang members, through a project led by the playwright and poet Paul Flores in collaboration with the San Francisco Arts Commission. 

Allegedly, Poveda was in La Campanera on Wednesday to set things straight with the gang, “to mediate”, according to Romero.  "He went to see them to deny it, also to defend what was his. He was very cautious of copyright laws. He also went to set up a photo shoot with a French photographer to shoot the girls of the gang for ELLE magazine," Romero commented, "He told me that the situation was hot, but above all were his ethics and his intent to save future generations of Salvadorans."

Poveda and his film would go on to become part of the ongoing saga, the story of the Maras of El Salvador and Central America. An advocate of non-violent, non-repressive prevention, he would fall victim not far from the place where his film was set. As Emilio Maillé, co-producer of La Vida Loca put it, the “crazy” part of it was that he ended up “the same way a character in one of his films would.” 

Poveda was esteemed as a veteran photojournalist, filmmaker and teacher of photography. He was leading workshops to teach young photographers his craft.

I have no doubt that Poveda’s timely, intimate and jarring account of gang life in El Salvador will go on record to become one of the subject’s most important contributions, and similarly, I hope it will be utilized, as the author hoped, to help understand rather than condemn the young people it depicts. As I write this, I’m fully conscious of my optimism in the face of the noise that surrounds the subject. 

As a proud American, and a proud Salvadoran, as a community-based artist and a media-maker, I hope, I work, I pray for a day when opportunities will be given for these kids to participate in something more productive than gangs. For funds to be used to attack the conditions they’re in. To feed in them the need to create, to be recognized for something, to tell their own stories –––and for people to quietly listen.