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.

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).

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.