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Central America's Street Gangs Find Space to Grow in Milan

BARRIO 18 / 30 SEP 2016 BY LUIS FERNANDO ALONSO EN

Milan is known the world over for its high-end fashion and design, but a new report brings attention to a much less favorable label the city has acquired as the European stronghold of Central America's hyper-violent Barrio 18 and MS13 street gangs. 

MS13 and Barrio 18 factions based in Milan are carrying out acts of violence and are becoming a public safety concern for the police and the Salvadoran expatriate community, reported El Mundo. Deidamia Calderon, who moved to Milan in the 1970s to work as a maid, told the newspaper how her community is changing as a result of the gangs. 

"This year we were afraid to celebrate Independence Day in a park," Calderon said, adding that extra police presence was required for the September 11 festivities. "The gangs...have been introduced silently and no one knows how many of them are now around us."

According to El Mundo, there are currently 15 gang members being held in the Milanese Bollate Prison for murder, attempted murder, or aggravated violence. Much of the violence is directed towards other gang members. Salvadoran news outlet El Faro recounted one particularly bloody example from 2008, when a football match devolved into a violent battle between the two gangs. A young man was severely beaten and lost one eye.

However, gang-related crime appears appears to be spreading outside the Salvadoran community. In June 2015, several gang members attacked a train inspector with a machete, reported El Mundo. The attack nearly left the man without his right arm. 

Anna Viola and Gianluigi Pino, a social worker and a psychologist who work with incarcerated gang members, say Salvadoran youths who struggle to adapt to their new settings are vulnerable to being taken in by a gang. 

"They are young people who came to Italy when they were 13 or 14 years old through a process of family reunification," Viola said. "Many did not want to come here and met an unwelcome environment: a mother whom they only knew from Skype, a foreign language and culture, and a cold climate."

"These are guys who cannot find a place in society and seek to identify with something," continued Pino. "The gang becomes their family."

InSight Crime Analysis

Central American-based gangs in Italy is not a new phenomenon; according to Conte, the first evidence of MS13 members being active in Milan surfaced in 2005 or 2006. The gangs in Italy have mimicked many of the same cultural and organizational norms as their counterparts in El Salvador. Even the Barrio 18 split between the Sureños and Revolucionarios factions has been mimicked in Italy, albeit at a delayed pace. In both 2013 and 2015, the Italian State Police launched raids against the MS13 in Milan, arresting over a dozen gang members in each instance. 

    SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Italy is a natural landing spot and recruiting ground for gang members because of the large Salvadoran expatriate community there. With an estimated 40,000 Salvadorans living just in Milan and its surroundings, this represents the largest concentration of Salvadorans outside of the Western Hemisphere.

According to El Mundo, Salvadoran women began migrating to Milan to work as domestic servants in the 1970s. Many decided to stay as their home country devolved into civil war. Eventually, they brought over their husbands, brothers, and sons, who were fleeing the war. Now, however, the migrants reaching Milan are often fleeing the gang violence that helped turn El Salvador into the most homicidal country in the world last year. 

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