Leaving the Gang: Is It Still Possible?

El Salvador Pandillero Pastor Evangelico

This photo, originally published in D’Aubuisson’s Factum article called “Divine Intervention,” portrays a young female ex-gang member, “Ms. Z”, preaching a fiery sermon against the gang to which she formerly belonged.

Over the last few years, I have tried to ease back on the claims made in my book about leaving the gang by way of the (Evangelical/Pentecostal) church. It’s not that I don’t believe my own research. Rather, given that some of my first interviews with ex-gang members and gang experts are now almost ten years old, I have been less eager to make claims about what the Central American gangs allow. After all, a key characteristic of street gangs is their tendency to adapt to their social surroundings and therefore, gangs, including the Central American gangs, are constantly evolving along with their society. Also, I had been told by several gang researchers that gang leaders, especially those in El Salvador, “no longer let anyone leave.”

I have always been a little bit skittish about the sweeping statements regarding gang policies, especially when those statements make reference to hard-line, supposedly “universal” policies or practices. My research taught me that Central American gangs tend to vary somewhat from one “clica” to the next, even though they do share strong tendencies across the major affiliation groups (MS-13, M-18 “Revolucionarios” and M-18 “Sureños” are the big three in ES). But I had been out of the field long enough that I had started to wonder if my findings regarding religious pathways out of the gang no longer applied in Central America.

Newly published research suggests that my findings — especially the conclusion that many gang leaders allow a “pass” for religious converts if they can show evidence of a changed lifestyle — continue to hold true, including in El Salvador, where gang growth and institutionalization has been the strongest. Two pieces of research that support this conclusion are an extensive report published just this month by Jose Miguel Cruz of Florida International University, and a feature republished in February by Insight Crime. Cruz, who has been studying the Central American gangs consistently longer than any other scholar alive, conducted a large-scale (N=1196) survey of mostly gang members and sympathizers, and came to the conclusion that, not only is it still possible to leave the gang permanently in many clicas, but additionally, “Religious experience plays a key role in the pathway desistance from the gang” (6). He points out that the vast majority of those surveyed reported that the churches are the most capable facilitators of gang rehabilitation (followed by NGO’s).

Meanwhile, Salvadoran sociologist Juan Martinez D’Aubuisson argues, in a very interesting piece called “Divine Intervention” that “Hundreds of gang members are abandoning and outright rejecting their gangs, opting instead for the teachings of evangelical churches.” He also states that some of the ex-gang members, many of whom join churches inside the prison, preach a fiery rejection of the gang.

I am not posting this as “vindication” of my research, conducted in 2007 and 2008. It is, of course, possible, that at some point the gang leaders will end the frequently-held policy of “respecting” religious conversions so long as the convert shows evidence of a changed life. Nor am I stating that the religious pathway out of the gang is the “answer” or “solution” to the problem of gang violence. As my book makes clear, a much more effective, far-reaching approach to reducing gang violence would be to reduce the economic inequalities that fuel alienation among youth, and to expand opportunity and inclusion in marginal barrios through significantly enhanced spending on public schools, parks, and youth recreational opportunities. For the time being, however, local initiatives, both religious and non-religious, can continue to play a key role in providing “off-ramps” from the violent, vida loca lifestyle for a significant minority of gang members who have grown weary of the gang and it’s demands.

El Salvador’s Changing Landscape


Violence and gang control has spread from San Salvador to almost every province of the country. That was the takeaway from a presentation by Alexander Segovia, director of INCIDE, a Salvadoran think tank created by the director after his tenure working as technical secretary for the Funes administration. Segovia’s talk was based on a recent report put out by INCIDE titled Nuevo Patrón de Violencia. Granted, it´s a fairly easy argument to make when looking at the homicide data. I was more interested in his comment regarding

Three ways communities are responding to the gang violence:

  1. Some communities are responding by “hunkering down” or migrating. In these communities there appears to be insufficient social capital to provide the courage or capacity to resist gang control.
  2. Other communities are organizing to protect their youth from the temptation to join. (I wasn’t clear on all of the details here of how this is done but Segovia was not necessarily speaking about law enforcement here. This kind of organizing includes looking for ways to provide alternative options to youth including local jobs.)
  3. Another set of communities are organizing to arm themselves and fight. This option is most common in communities where the war was the “hottest” and there is a memory of how to organize and arm the citizenry. Among other means of “resisting” gangs, some communities are using social cleansing — the extrajudicial killing of gang members.

Finally, Segovia commented that a relatively new or newly-intensified aspect of Salvadoran society is the pattern of migration — both within Salvador and within Central America, especially to Nicaragua, and especially among youth. When he said this, I immediately thought of one of the young security guards I recently interviewed here in Guatemala. After graduating from high school in El Salvador, he migrated to Guatemala due to the increasing gang activity in his urban neighborhood. “It wasn’t safe enough anymore” he told me. Later I met his cousin, a young woman who had herself just finished her studies and had come to stay with her aunt and uncle in Guatemala, just like her cousin had done a few years earlier. This migration strikes me as a terrible waste of human capital for El Salvador. We are not talking about people who have nothing to offer. We are talking about educated (relatively speaking for the region) young people with hopes and dreams, who are being forced to leave their homeland because of a security situation that has been dealt with in a totally haphazard and “top-down” approach for decades.

On that note, for anyone interested in understanding the actual impact of the Gang Tregua (truce) let me recommend a very interesting thesis I read last week. It’s called Enhancing Citizen Security on the Frontline of a Contested Playing Field by Margriet Zoethout and it provides a view from one of San Salvador’s “Violence-Free Municipalities” over a three-year period during and after the Truce.

One more very interesting point about El Salvador, this one made by Prof. Mauricio Gaborit, Social Psychologist at the Universidad Centroamericana Simeon Cañas. He has been interviewing deported Salvadoran migrants on the day the are forcibly returned to ES. He noted that “The vast majority of Salvadorans who migrate are not jobless or school-less. They have bad jobs or are in weak schools.” Given that the conference was addressing the matter of forced migration, it is interesting to think about the nature of an economy that provides “plenty” of jobs — but way too many of them are really bad ones. Similarly, there are public schools — but most are overcrowded, underfunded, and unsafe. In this context, gang violence and the increasing experiences of insecurity it brings to the community are often a kind of “last straw” as families try to weigh the costs and benefits to sticking it out.

El Salvador Going from Bad to Worse


Carlos Martinez, the “dean” of gang journalists, wrote an interesting piece about the Salvadoran gangs for Elfaro.net back in September (when all eyes were on Guatemala). In the piece he quoted from interviews with two high-level leaders of the gangs each of which spoke on the condition of anonymity about the situation in their respective gangs. Although he communicated with them independently (neither is in prison), there were several points of alignment in what they had to say about the current gang setting in El Salvador. Among other points, they coincided in their assessments that:

– There is now very little “order” among the gang cells. While the Salvadoran gangs have traditionally been far more organized and hierarchical than their neighbors in the Guatemalan and Honduran gangs, since the breakdown of the truce, and the return of the top leaders to the maximum security Zacatraz, local gang leaders have been making their own decisions about where, when, and how often to allow violence. In most cases, this has meant a significant increase in homicides.

– Salvador is currently awash in a sea of weapons. This fact is not merely the impression of the gang leaders with whom Martinez spoke anonymously. It is also the distinct impression of the Salvadoran Armed Forces (who have confiscated almost three times as many weapons this year as last year) and the Guatemalan authorities who report that weapons are harder to come by in Guatemala because so many high-caliber weapons have been sold to Salvadorans, especially in the Eastern border regions of Guatemala. Martinez mentions that one gang leader last year was recorded in a phone tap as saying “without the [truce], there’s going to be lead flying in all directions.” It appears that the gangs began stockpiling weapons as the truce deteriorated, anticipating an all-out war with police that continues to the present. The war (with the police and between factions) has indeed materialized and the homicide rate is on track to surpass that of Honduras which, for the past several years, has distinguished itself as the most violent nation in the hemisphere.

– Gang recruiters are aiming at a much younger demographic. Children of 11, 12, and 14 years of age are joining the gang in large numbers due to recruiting efforts after the breakdown of the truce. Although the informants did not say say, one can easily surmise that this combination — younger, newer gang members and more, higher-caliber guns – can go a long way toward explaining the spike in violence in El Salvador.

El Salvador: From Bad to Worse


Things are going very badly in El Salvador, as Hector Silva points out in his blogpost on the AULA blog today. Silva seems convinced that the truce created an environment in which the gangs could increase their power and reach, and he may be right, although it’s quite difficult to know this for sure since both gang membership (which can be fairly accurately estimated in E.S. since so many gang members there are in gang-specific prisons) as well as homicides were already on the rise long before the truce — which temporarily lowered the homicide rate. The homicide rate went from 40 homicides per 100,000 in 2003 up to 70/100,000 in 2011, right before the truce began. Now the rate is spiking again. Silva also points out that President Cerén’s political zigging and zagging from “peace and justice” rhetoric to hard line tactics involving “Gang Cleanup Battalions” are not helping matters. The gang truce has been abandoned but no coherent (much less proven) strategy has been introduced in its place. Cerén is opening the door wide for another round of popularly-supported “mano dura” nonsense — whether launched by himself or by his eventual replacement. The only question now is, after Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura, what will the next round of zero tolerance be christened? Perhaps, Hiper Mano Dura.

Salvadoran Gang Leaders Assess the Truce

Yesterday’s front page story on ElFaro.net is a piece by Sala Negra writers Carlos Martinez and Jose Luis Sanz. And let me say to begin, these guys are really good at what they do. They work hard to get interviews with everyone involved in the Salvadoran gang and crime debate that has so enveloped that nation, especially since the time of the truce (a story they themselves broke). They have discussed the truce with everyone from incarcerated gang leaders to media-savvy (and not so savvy) politicians as well as the priests and pastors who have at times been involved. More importantly, they don’t hesitate to ask their guests the really tough questions. So I was delighted to see that, after a long period of not having access to gang members, the authors once again sat down to discuss the current status of the gang truce first introduced in 2012.

It isn’t necessary (or feasible) to provide a history of the truce here. Elfaro has done a better job than anyone else at chronicling that entirely unexpected, sometimes mystifying series of events during the past two years. Suffice it to say that with the secret blessing of the FMLN administration and the participation of a number of actors, including a Roman Catholic bishop (whose role it would later be argued was largely, though not “merely,” symbolic), a process of negotiation was begun in February 2012 in which some incarcerated gang members were transferred from an overcrowded maximum-security prison to a medium-security prison where face-to-face dialogs were facilitated leading to a “no more killing” pact between the three principal gang organizations. Immediately following the reaching of an “accord,” the homicide rate dropped by about fifty percent. Although there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the truce, the fact the murder rate was cut in half — to about 35 murders per 100,000 residents per year — is not really a matter of debate. Although homicides went up modestly in 2013, they are still far less frequent today than they were in 2011, the last full year before the truce, when they stood at 67/100,000.

Today, with just weeks before the next presidential elections, there are signs that the truce may be nearing an end. The FMLN has essentially backed away from the truce but the gang leaders are arguing that a total abandonment, whether by the FMLN or by the ARENA should that party win, will result in a situation that is at least as deadly, if not more so, than the murder rate of 2011. Many Salvadorans hear in such predictions a veiled threat, and they understandably bristle at the thought of gang leaders holding the population hostage by promising a rise in violence if their demands aren’t met. And yet, as the gang leaders interviewed in today’s piece point out, the gangs have rarely asked for more than that their constitutional rights be respected. Prior to the truce, there were many documented abuses of such rights — such as visitation rights for incarcerated gang members, and the removal of military personnel from prison posts, where, it was argued, they were able to compile information about gang members’ families in order to extort them for money or information.

In yesterday’s Elfaro piece, Martinez and Sanz sit down with leaders of the three groups making up the M-18. Two belong to the “Revolutionary” wing of the M-18 and the other belongs to the Sur, or “main” group. Although these are not the top leaders of the gangs, they are the highest ranking members outside the prison. Also, about half-way through the interview, the loquacious Sergio Mijangos, political architect and chief spokesperson for the truce, can’t help himself and joins the conversation from the sidelines. (We can only assume that his presence was required in order to make the interview happen.)

The interview is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, as the journalists themselves admit, the eloquence of the gang (sub-)leaders is arresting. These guys possess amazingly refined political instincts. They know what to say, and what not to say. One gets the impression that they are not dissembling so much as trying to avoid language that could come back to haunt them, even while they try hard to help outsiders understand their organization. At times though, they are painfully honest, admitting the problems and mistakes of members of their own group with surprising frankness.

Most importantly, the gang leaders are candid about the difficulties they face in trying to reign in the violence of their own members — especially of the youngest members. They openly admit that maintaining “discipline” with regard to the no-killing rule takes enormous time and effort. And, although without saying so in so many words, they allow it to be known that it is with violence that they punish rule-breakers. Essentially, the result of this policy is that when a gang member breaks the no-murder rule, the result will be two homicides rather than one. The journalists press them on this. Are they really claiming to use murder to punish murder and if so, isn’t this a contradiction of their own policy? [A good question to ask the 26 U.S. states that continue to practice capital punishment, I thought.] The leaders reply deftly that they have a variety of means available to them for punishing betrayers of the truce. Thus, they never come out and state their policy of execution for betraying the truce, but neither do they deny it.

What we have here is a fascinating instance of what sociologists call a system of “social control” — but it is neither entirely “legal control” nor merely “informal control.” That is, the gangs have developed mechanisms for exercising social control that follow prescribed (though not necessarily written) rules and punishments. They even allude to the practice of gathering information about a truce violation before making a decision about punishment, much like a court of law. Furthermore, it becomes apparent during the interview that the truce brought new responsibility for the gangs. The sub-leaders argue that many of the street murders that are attributed to the gangs, are not actually conducted by jumped-in gang members. Some are murders committed by high school kids who get drunk and have access to the firearms that are so plentiful in the marginal barrios. (Experience and data tell us that this argument is not fantasy. In Guatemala, the most violent regions of the country are not gang-controlled neighborhoods, and there is good evidence that many of the killings in these places, much like in the streets of Caracas, have to do with personal feuds and vendettas, not merely the drug trade.) However, because even non-gang murders reflect on the gang, the gang leadership must address them, “punishing” in effect even those who are not full-fledged gang members, for violating a truce between the gangs. What we have then is a system in which the gangs are executing justice and promoting crime control in areas where the state’s criminal justice system has practically, if not formally, forfeited that role. This situation might be similar to some immigrant communities in New York City at the turn of the century or in prohibition-era Chicago.

Almost as interesting as this discussion of the gangs’ participation in the execution of justice is the discussion of charging “rent” (extortion) to non-gang members and business owners in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Many Salvadorans are angry that the “truce” has not diminished the practice of extortion, a gang practice that in many ways affects more Salvadorans, and in more direct ways, than the killings between gang members and other barrio youth. The authors ask the gang sub-leaders essentially: “If you can tell gang members not to kill, why don’t you tell them not to extort?” A fair question, to which the Sur sub-leader replies:

For me that would be the correct thing to do. But what kind of answer would I get? At a  minimum [the young homie] is going to ask me if I’ve got a job for him. I’m going to have to tell him, “Hang on a couple of years and the government will have something for you.” He’s going to say to me, “F— you! And what am I supposed to do tomorrow?” These are huge problems. How can it be possible that in two years [since the beginning of the truce] no one has been able to provide the wherewithal to — hell, I don’t know — to say “this is what we’re going to do” in order that the grassroots of our gangs start to feel like if they straighten out, there’s going to be something for them other than just a jail cell. I can hold them back but I’ve also got to offer him something as a person, so that he can start changing from the inside.

This comment struck me as sincere and prescient. The problem of rent-charging (on which the gangs rely for economic survival) is fairly simple and straightforward, though certainly NOT easy to solve. It is always difficult to “create” jobs and match them to the skills, education, and abilities of persons whose socialization has left them outside the formal labor market for most of their lives. There are certainly individuals and organizations working at this task. What’s needed is more political will, and more dedication at every level — the local, the communal, and the national level. Although I am not an expert in the Salvadoran experience nor in the truce per se, the interview left me, again, with the distinct impression that the truce has opened up some space, and bought some time, but that by itself, the truce is far from a “solution.” A lot depends on what happens from here — both in the sense of whether or not the elections bring in a government with the political will to spend sufficiently and wisely on a social problem (urban youth violence with a great deal of gang involvement) that took two decades to evolve and, as a result, will take about as long to effectively address. Meanwhile, individual communities and the religious and civic organizations active in them, can make choices about how they wish to address the violence in their own communities. Because, as we have seen already in the U.S., massive incarceration creates at least as many problems as it “solves.”