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.

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El Salvador Going from Bad to Worse

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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

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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.

Homies and Hermanos: Where are they now?

I have been meaning to write a post that provides an update on some of the ex-gang members I first interviewed in 2007-8. Yesterday, Lucas Olson, a TA for an undergraduate class taught by Daniel Esser at American University asked if I would respond to some questions posed by the class after reading my book, so the exchange offered an opportunity to speak to provide this kind of update. With permission of Prof. Esser, I’m posting here a (slightly edited) version of the questions — which are excellent — and my responses to these questions.

1) Could you update us on the trajectories of individuals with whom you worked? 
I have been able to catch up with or otherwise collect *some* information as to the whereabouts of thirty of the original sixty-three ex-gang members interviewed for this project. Of these thirty, I have formally re-interviewed seventeen, all of them in Guatemala and Honduras. Let me say first that catching up with these folks hasn’t been easy and that has as much to do with finding the money and time to travel as it does with actually tracking them down. But the lower number of interviews is also due to a very high mortality rate. Of those thirty, eight are no longer living. Of these eight, six died from violence, and two more died of health issues related to violence during their gang years. There is no simple way to “summarize” the trajectories of the men and women I have caught up with or learned about. To put it briefly, some are doing well, others are struggling, and some have died. 
A few examples: “Pancho,” whose story starts chapter three, ended up getting locked up (a year or two after I interviewed him) for a crime he committed before he left the gang. According to my source (a Honduran sociologist who knew him well) Pancho, under pressure to show that he was a “provider” for his family, got involved in selling drugs during this later stint in prison.  Shortly after he was released from prison in 2012, he was killed, probably due to the nature of the business in which he had become involved though it’s impossible to know for sure. “Ricardo” another Honduran whose story of dramatic conversion starts the fifth chapter, is no longer pastoring a Pentecostal congregation due to a separation with his wife. After his congregation was taken away from him (by the denomination), the local mayor (of the more progressive “Liberal” party) recruited him for his people/organizing skills. When I interviewed him last year, he was doing relatively well financially but noticeably affected by the fact that he was separated from his wife and daughter. Finally, I have a short piece about “Angel” (the guy who told me about being told “The only way out is in your pine-box suit”) in the video made by AU prof Bill Gentile. He now works at a bank, is married, getting a business degree, and working with his wife as youth directors at a Pentecostal church. 

2) Has the contemporary pattern of violence in these individuals at all turned inwards or been redirected towards their family (wife, children,…)

It is totally possible that in some cases the violence that was formerly directed outward, has now turned “inward” toward the family. That’s a smart intuition of risk on your part. Of course, it would follow a demographic/age pattern that goes beyond gang members or ex-gang members. Young men/boys are more likely to want their violence to be “public” whereas older men, who are subject to stronger societal norms of adulthood, might confine their violence to the private sphere. (Randall Collins has some interesting observations about the difference between mafia violence and gang violence that might be applicable here.) I just don’t really have a good way of finding out about such a sensitive issue and I’m not really in a good position to ask that kind of question flat out so I couldn’t say if it’s happening or how much.

3) Could you give us a better sense of your skepticism of other authors who argue that churches shy away from addressing structural causes of violence?

I’m not skeptical that churches — Evangelical churches anyway — tend to shy away from addressing structural causes of violence. They do. In fact, I have tried to use the opportunities I’ve had when speaking to religious audiences in order to encourage them to “notice” the structural underpinnings of violence and attraction to the gangs (economic inequality for example). At the same time, I also realize that most barrio evangelicals don’t really have access to the levers of power that could effectively address long term structural injustice and violence. 
 
One of the points I try to make in the conclusion is that there is at least a possibility that a movement for social justice *could* emerge from within Pentecostal community. We shouldn’t confuse personal morality and religious enthusiasm with support for the political status quo even if those things have often gone hand-in-hand here in the U.S. They certainly have not gone together in Black churches in the U.S. In any case, while I think it’s important to be able to see and critique structures, I would hate to see these churches losing their resolve to make an impact on individual lives, “blooming where they’re planted” so to speak. 
4) Could you recommend one or two readings that highlight the role of women in these communities?
Ouch! You’re exposing my patriarchal perspective! The UCA university in El Salvador has published a book (in Spanish) about women gang members and women in prison. You can see a pdf here. Now that you mention it, there seems to be a dichotomy in Guatemala at least, maybe even the region as a whole, that research done on women is almost always done on rural (typically indigenous) women while research on men, at least recently, tends to address urban contexts/problems. If anyone ever feels so inclined, dissertation/books on the experience of urban ladina (mestiza) women would make a great topic. I’m sure there’s stuff out there but I’m blanking at the moment. And I have certainly discussed this lacuna before with my wife (who is an urban Guatemalan).

Analyzing CARSI and Its Impact (on gangs)

Nick Phillips, whose articles about Central American violence have appeared in places like the New York Times (see my post Religious NGO’s and Justice) and Global Post, has written a lengthy appraisal of the impact of Central American Regional Security Initiative on Guatemala called “CARSI in Guatemala: Progress, Failure, and Uncertainty.” What Phillips has to say about gangs in Guatemala is not really a surprise but it was nice to see someone else saying what a few of us have been arguing for some time now, namely:

1) Gang membership in Guatemala is probably much lower than most of the press has been citing.

2) That much of the criminality attributed to the gangs arises from non-gang groups who have adopted some of the strategies and techniques of the gang.

For example, in the two excerpt paragraphs below, Phillips notes that:

[A] 2011 United Nations report estimated Gua­temala’s gang population at 22,000 strong. [But] Edwin Ortega, director of the PNC’s anti-gang unit (called PANDA), believes it is much smaller than that, around 5,000. He said PANDA is currently conducting a national gang census to get a clearer pic­ture. It will not be easy: the gangs conceal their tattoos, tie their shoes in secret ways to show their allegiance, speak backwards on the phone to foil wiretaps, and smuggle notes written in coded handwriting in and out of prisons. The govern­ment reported in May 2014 that Guatemala was home to 40 clicas of Dieciocho and 30 of MS, with hundreds of their members already in prison. The MS is more selective in its recruitment, Ortega said, but press reports suggest that both maras recruit children as young as six years old to do their dirty work.

. . .

All of these gangs extort, but not all extortionists are gangsters. In fact, Ortega says that some 70 percent of extortionists are civilians who only pretend to be members of MS or Dieciocho in order to frighten victims into forking over cash. In some cases, these civilians have no connection to the maras and are making idle threats. But last January, a judge convicted ten people who had been extort­ing bus drivers while also paying quotas to three different gangs, suggesting that the gangs may have been charging for use of their “brand” in a sort of franchise arrangement.

I know personally of at least one concrete example in which family friends of mine from Mixco were being extorted by supposed gang members who used telephone calls through a cell phone in order to intimidate the family to the point that the family decided to pick up everything and abandon the family compound (the family is an extended family with about 15 adults and children) having scraped together enough resources to buy a smaller home in a gated community. The family learned later, from a very reliable source, that they had been extorted by adult (non-gang) members of a household on the same block as their old house. I tell this story not to argue that the gangs are not truly violent — of course they are. But their violence has been co-opted by a variety of individuals and groups who have found that the gang model provides both a “portable” technique as well as a smokescreen for throwing off investigators. Even when the gangs are involved, they are often receiving only a small portion of the profits, since their low social status requires them to pay most of the profits to individuals at higher rungs in the organizational ladder.

Phillips also spends some time trying to get the bottom of why the homicide rate has been falling in Guatemala for roughly a decade. He has interviewed some thoughtful, experienced Guatemalans (including my friend Carlos Mendoza) and offers an informed perspective that makes sense to my ear. If you are interested in Guatemala’s violence or in the violence of Northern Central America, reading this report is worth the time investment.

Religious NGO’s and Justice: A Unique Approach in Honduras

About a month ago the New York Times printed a story by Nicholas Phillips, a free-lance journalist who has been doing research on Central American gangs recently. He sent me the link to this story but I was so busy I forgot to post it at the time. The article profiles a very interesting program spearheaded by theAsociación para una Sociedad más Justa, which is an organization supported by Christian Reformed churches and individuals, especially in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. Kurt Alan Ver Beek is a sociologist on faculty at Calvin College who, in addition to teaching and conducting research on development in Honduras, helps provide leadership to ASJ in Honduras. In the article, he points out:

“We often blame the police, but what’s underreported in all this is that these cases also require witnesses to be brave. Fear on the part of witnesses is just as big of a problem as corruption in the system. And both create a vicious circle.”

Most folks tend to think of religious gang intervention programs aseither preventive or restorative in nature, but the ASJ program focuses on justice for victims and, interestingly, does so in cooperation with (hand-picked, trustworthy) members of the police and the courts.

“The investigators are part of an experiment in Nueva Suyapa that shows how the cycle of violence and impunity can be broken when middlemen do the work that the police and prosecutors either cannot or will not, tracking down witnesses, gaining their trust and persuading them to cooperate with the authorities.”

I have grown increasingly convinced that in order to address the problem of gang violence in Central America, judicial reform is absolutely critical. Prosecutors (in Honduras it’s the “investigative police” while in Guatemala it’s the Ministerio Publico) must have both the resources and the political will behind them in order to do their job effectively. After all, when fewer than 10% of murders reach a conviction, as is the case in Guatemala, not only do those who commit murder have the option of continuing in the trade, but victims’ families find it very difficult to opt for taking information to the police rather than simply arranging for “punishment” often through a third party (including the opposing gang). But I typically talk about judicial reform as something that needs to happen at the highest levels through pressure from the UN or international human rights advocates. But ASJ is using a kind of bottom-up approach (although they also advocate for structural reforms in the justice system as well).

It requires a change of perspective in order to imagine a church-sponsored private investigator, but ASJ is doing some groundbreaking work here, I believe. Last summer I met a Pentecostal pastor whose church in a barrio of Tegucigalpa provides an office for an ASJ-sponsored lawyer who takes complaints from community members, including extortion, and follows up on them, often working hard in order to reassure the victim or family that they will be kept safe and that the information will not end up in the wrong hands. It will be interesting to see if the idea catches on. Surely, a lot depends on the success of cases like those of Nueva Suyapa.

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.”