- Space of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador by Elana Zilberg
“I don’t do gangs,” Elana Zilberg used to say, almost plaintively, to fans who approached her after one of her many eloquent conference presentations on Salvadoran youth and migration. Nonetheless, like Philippe Bourgois and crack in 1980s Spanish Harlem, she ended up “forced into [gangs] against [her] will” (1996:1). Also like Bourgois, she has written a riveting account of how (mostly) young men become discarded in the context of another economic and political transition. Perhaps unlike Bourgois, however, she remains a reluctant ethnographer, uncomfortable representing Weasel, Gato, Sleepy, and other members and former members of gangs such as La Mara Salvatrucha (MS or MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang. Hence, readers may not find the expected account of la vida loca (the crazy life) in Space of Detention—but most will undoubtedly finish this beautifully written book with an intimate understanding of the capillaries of millennial capitalism and US-American Empire.
Bourgois did worry about how to render marginalized young New York Puerto Ricans in his In Search of Respect, not wanting to reiterate damaging stereotypes, but also refusing to sanitize “the suffering and destruction that exists on inner-city streets” (1996:12). Zilberg, who turned to anthropology after years as a Los Angeles-based immigration advocate and activist during El Salvador’s civil war, expresses similar anxiety. She laments the “excited and frenetic” action-movie style of many documentaries (226), and wonders if academics and activists have unwittingly contributed to the production of a “transnational gang crisis” (236–237). For her part, she examines how the US and El Salvador are linked through neoliberal “securityscapes,” a concept she updates as “patterns of circulation that [End Page 325] result from the effort of states and police to control the mobility of subjects considered to be dangerous, in this case gang youth and immigrants” (3). Again like Bourgois, Zilberg accepts that criminalized youth can be agents in their own “demonization.” She, too, is interested in the structures that trap them. She is concerned with “the power of law and law enforcement in producing and reproducing crime” (9). Ultimately, she explores a discursive “gang-crime-terrorism continuum” that chokes hope for stigmatized youth across the Americas.
Law’s transnational mobility propels much of the action in this book. Versions of zero-tolerance and the USA Patriot Act flow between the US and El Salvador, as imaginaries of terrorist Others become as flexible as ideal-type postindustrial workers, all in the service of capital. Following trajectories of law, discourse, and human beings, Zilberg situates the first half of the book in Los Angeles, the second in San Salvador. The sites inevitably bleed into each other. Take one of the earliest moments in the book, the 1992 LA riots, which exploded after four police officers were acquitted of beating motorist Rodney King despite video of the incident. Zilberg reminds us that in the courtroom, the police defense played up Rodney King’s dangerous mobility, depicting him as “hyperactive and subversively mobile,” speeding in his car and then refusing to be still while cops thrashed him (63). Then she shows us how this same kind of transgressive mobility was hitched to figures featured in media coverage of the riots: Latino looters frequently (rightly or not) portrayed as undocumented Salvadorans—many of whom had fled civil war at home. Zilberg argues that such visions have helped drive wars on crime and immigrants (a process that has only intensified post-9/11).
Anti-immigrant and anti-crime initiatives followed the riots (California’s Propositions 184 and 187), key parts of which found their way into two 1996 federal laws: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Beholden to a neoliberal notion of the “responsibilization” of the individual, these acts turn even a nonviolent crime such as a DUI into an “aggravated felony.” Applied retroactively, and often...