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  • Spaces of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador
  • Joseph L. Scarpaci
Spaces of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador. Elana Zilberg. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. 360 pp., notes, appendices, and index. $24.95 paperback (ISBN 978-0-8223-4730-9)

Brown-skin street gangs such as La Mara Salvatrucha, images of Latino looters, and the spread of urban 'securityscapes' have gripped the imagination and media attention of news outlets. Politicians Dick Cheney, New Gingrich, and a handful of southwestern U.S. governors and sheriffs promulgated those images to the American public for several decades. This is the context that anthropologist and Associate Director for Global California Studies at the University of California, San Diego, Elana Zilberg, captures from both a 'macro' and 'micro' perspective. In broad strokes, she tells the story about how the U.S. government's experience in low-intensity warfare from Korea and Vietnam were used as local government proxies in El Salvador. At the local level, gangs emerged there and in the U.S. as the result of uneven development between Latin America and the United States where tensions have been negotiated from 'above' (governments, corporations) and 'below' (immigrants, youth, women, and grassroots organization). In turn, gangs become the lens through which these newly created securityscapes are understood.

This book is not a romantic West Side Story of irreverent youth coping with the American 'melting pot.' Rather, when El Salvadoran civil strife ended in 1992, broad structural reforms heavily promoted market capitalism. El Salvador's rural oligarchy was weakened, food imports rose, and even beans and rice had to reach the Central American nation by containers leaving ports in the United States. Although land reform was a post-war 'benefit,' little technical assistance was available, and out-migration ensued. Accordingly, the book examines "the current obsession with the so-called transnational youth gang [End Page 211] crisis from the vantage point of the political history that constitutes the very ground that obsession works to obscure: namely, the ongoing participation of the United States in the production and reproduction of violence in El Salvador... the contemporary gang crisis [is]...a product of long-standing regional political structure and pattern between Latin America and the United States" (2). However, the author contends that "neither gangs nor immigrants are ultimately the objects of this study. Rather, they are the lens through which I examine the production and contestation over the contemporary manifestation of long-standing 'securityscapes' through and in which both the United States and El Salvador are linked and complicit" (3).

Eight chapters and an epilogue (most of the field work ends around 2007) constitute three parts of the book: 'Los Angeles,' 'San Salvador,' and 'A disturbance in Time and Space.' Geographers who wrestle with linking different scales of analysis (local, regional, national, and global) will appreciate the author's painstaking efforts to interpret her decade-long tracking of gang members from Los Angeles to El Salvador, and in some cases, back again. At times, the political theoretical interpretation of gangs viewed through the lenses of Foucault, Lefebvre, and others becomes opaque and jargon-laden. At other times, the experiences of her key informants are insightful and even amusing. Witness the case of Weasel, who after 20 years in the United States is deported back to San Salvador for minor infractions in Los Angeles. He flaunts a garish-dyed Mohawk haircut to match his role as an alien Martian in the country in which he was born. Weasel's English, though, is much better than his Spanish. His tale, like those of other subjects in the book, shows how state agencies use discipline to impose structure on the poor, and how the triad of gangs, terrorism, and immigrants becomes conflated in the same narrative. Newt Gingrich's 2005 documentary "American Gangs," produced and aired by Fox News, captures this mélange by superimposing images of jihadists running through a Middle Eastern dessert, and brown-skin people crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Other alarmist reportage such as the killing of Brenda Paz, an FBI informant whose body...


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pp. 211-213
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