Los Angeles has long fed the global popular culture with TV and films, but now the city is in the spotlight for a new, more lethal export: Hispanic street-gang violence. Gangs certainly aren't new. But as the National Geographic Channel's upcoming documentary "Explorer: World's Most Dangerous Gang" illustrates, the allure of all things from the Golden State is giving this familiar story a particularly sinister new spin.
"There's an unintended phenomenon in the gang culture," says Al Valdez, a supervisor in the Orange County District Attorney's Gang Unit. "If you're [a gang member] from Los Angeles or Southern California and you end up in another part of the country or another part of the world, you're considered a big fish in a little pond because you're from L.A."
The show profiles Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a relatively new Los Angeles-based gang that has begun to spread around the world at what the experts call an alarming rate. Using gang-enforcement tactics developed in earlier decades - deportation, in particular - has actually contributed to what one officer calls the gang's "viral" growth. MS-13 began with a small group of young, illegal immigrants. It has grown by reaching out to new members, some as young as 8. "The culture is spreading to the youth very easily, especially with those [who] are impoverished," says Mr. Valdez, "and that's what makes them ... the most active and most dangerous in the country today."
As newly deported gang members find each other in their home countries, new "chapters" of the gang have popped up from Honduras to Spain. Central American countries in particular have been blindsided by this new American export - killings in the streets and entire neighborhoods under the control of an MS-13 "clique," as local sub-groups call themselves.
"There was no MS in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras before the deportation started," says Lisa Ling, host of the documentary. Deported gang members used to turn around and come back to the US. "But because deportation started to happen on such a widespread scale, these guys started wreaking L.A.-style havoc in their respective countries, as well as in different states across the US," she says.