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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Every day, as she travels to the food stall she operates, Mirna Isabel Villalta crosses an invisible but dangerous boundary.

Her modest home is in a part of San Salvador controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, a gang so ruthless and sprawling that the Obama administration has labeled it an international criminal organization. Her food stall is in the city center in an area controlled by Barrio 18, a gang that despises the Mara Salvatrucha.

She knows she’s breaking an unspoken rule.

“You can’t go from one barrio to the other,” Villalta said. But she does. Every day. And she keeps mum to those around her food stall about where she lives.

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El Salvador’s capital — and indeed nearly the entire country — is a checkerboard in which gang territories circumscribe the movement of those in the lower economic rungs of society, and especially young men.

As the gangs deepen connections with regional organized-crime groups involved in drug, weapons and human trafficking, they present a direct challenge to state control over the tiny Central American nation, said Carlos Ponce, a criminologist and former adviser to the National Civilian Police.

The chaos also provides an incentive for Salvadorans to try to flee north for the safety of the United States. Experts trying to explain the huge increase in children and teens who’ve arrived in the United States say anecdotal evidence points at least in part to the hold that criminal gangs have in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

While flight to the United States might be one way people are trying to escape the violence, there’s an ironic symmetry: El Salvador’s gang problem has its genesis in the United States, from the time of the country’s civil war, which also sent tens of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing to the United States.

The gangs began among El Salvadoran refugees — many of them young ex-soldiers — who came to Los Angeles to escape civil war in their home country in the 1980s. Salvadorans congregated in large numbers in L.A.’s Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.

For young people, that war — which wracked El Salvador from 1980 to 1992 and left at least 75,000 civilians dead — is ancient history. But by the time peace accords were signed, the gangs were on the rise, formed by gang members who had been deported from Los Angeles.

“Those kids 18 and 20 years old who joined the gangs have now grown up,” said Ilopango Mayor Salvador Ruano. “We’ve now had at least three generations of gang members.”

A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2007 found that the push to send gang members back to El Salvador had unintended consequences. Deporting gang members to El Salvador allowed the gang to expand its foothold there. Meanwhile, newly organized cells in El Salvador established beachheads in the United States.

The gang is now believed to have as many as 30,000 members and is rapidly expanding. More than 8,000 of those members are said to be operating within the United States across more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Experts say Mara Salvatrucha has also behaved in far more sophisticated ways than a typical L.A. barrio street gang. It has also diversified into activities such as drugs, extortion and human trafficking.

The gang’s grip on immigrant neighborhoods of L.A. has loosened in recent years amid a drop in crime and crackdown by the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. But gang has spread into Central America and east as far as Washington, D.C., which has a large Salvadoran population.

Salvadoran leaders have tried different tactics to rein in the gangs, beginning with a 2003 program, known as “Strong Hand” and followed by “Super Strong Hand” years later, that swept thousands of gang members into prisons.

“The ‘Strong Hand’ program only attacked the gang members who were on the street. It filled the jails. But it didn’t touch the leaders,” Ponce said.

In 2012, the government — with the help of the Organization of American States — brokered a truce between leaders of the two gangs that edged the nation’s homicide rate down from 12 killings a day to around five. But that truce fell apart earlier this year and homicides are back up. One recent weekend tallied 31 violent deaths.

Now the citizenry widely ridicules the truce.

“Most people say it didn’t do any good. They feel it was a nonaggression pact between leaders of the two gangs but that ordinary civilians still paid the price,” said Monica Pacheco, the coordinator of a Roman Catholic human-rights observatory based in San Salvador’s working-class Mejicanos district.

In Mejicanos, she said, residents “voice a lot of fear about going to another district because they might be tagged as belonging to the rival group. This is something they deal with all the time. It’s a life of fear and anguish.”

One former Mara Salvatrucha member, Marvin Gonzalez, who spent 10 years in prison for murder and has been free since 2012, said reconciliation between rival gangs was a monumental task.

“For the older ones, there is no forgiveness,” he said. “To come to an understanding with someone who’s shot your best friend, who’s shot at you, to sit down with them, believe me, it’s not easy.”

Includes material from Tribune Washington Bureau

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