Francis: A Pope for Gang Members?

 

Dear Pope Francis,
I think you are a humble man.
When you read this letter you will have washed the feet of other kids like me.
I am writing this letter because you give me hope.
I know one day with people like you us kids
won’t be given sentences that will keep us in prison
for the rest of our lives.
I pray for you. Don’t forget us.

“Don’t forget us.” These are the words of a young Los Angeles gang member writing from Juvenile Hall of Los Angeles County. According to Vatican Radio, Francis has received many such letters, some of them coming from youth involved in the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative run by Father Mike Kennedy. Interestingly, the Pontiff recently wrote back to one of the youths, providing a personal response to a young many named Carlos Adrian Vazquez Jr.

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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.

Pérez Molina Resigns

Hard to believe that Pérez Molina has resigned and will face a tribunal. Even as recently as last week I did not expect this to happen. But the pressure, first from the groundswell of anger manifested in weekly demonstrations in the Plaza Central, and then from Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture (among which there are some folks who no doubt hope that the investigations will stop after the President’s trial), left Molina without political cover. From the New York Times:

At the center of the events that led to Mr. Pérez Molina’s downfall is a persistent citizens movement that brought together vastly different groups for the first time. Guatemala City’s middle class, long reluctant to speak out after a brutal civil war demonstrated the costs of opposition, joined forces with peasant and indigenous groups.

Clearly, Molina seems to feel betrayed the most by CACIF. This from El Periodico:

Al arribar a la torre judicial enfatizó: “Vamos a llevar el debido proceso, ahora corresponde ir a los tribunales” y “he visto al CACIF haciendo señalamientos, queriendo liderar y salir de blanco, pero muchos aglutinados ahí, son parte de la corrupción”.

The real question remains, not who will win the upcoming elections but rather, will the social movement be strong enough to ensure that this Congress or the next passes the legislative package that includes campaign finance reform. This is something that the Guatemalan (Roman Catholic) Bishop´s Conference pointed out in its press conference last week calling on the President to resign. In fact, the Bishop´s Conference saved it´s harshest words for Congress, saying that:

“Never in the history of our democracy have we had a Congress like the present: inefficient, complacent with its own personal or party interests, with the majority of deputies playing absent. . . We ask that they put the paperwork in motion for impeachment and for reforms to the LEPP [Electoral Reform Law] proposed by the Electoral Supreme Court.

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.

Five Myths about the Migration Surge

Oxford University Press recently published this blogpost which I was asked to write about the surge in migrating Central American youth. It was a very difficult piece to write — at times it felt like walking through a mine field. There is a lot more I could say about the issue but the short story is that I believe 1) we need to be careful about making the dubious argument that all of the youth coming northward are escaping imminent violence, from the gang or otherwise, and 2) we need to use the opportunity to take a hard look at why economic inequality has persisted and what simple steps (like promoting progressive taxation) might be done to diminish it.

Incidentally, this post picked up a little steam when the HNN and the London School of Economics political blog about the US decided to run it. A day later later, Andrew Sullivan ran the last two paragraphs of my post in The Dish.

Strategies for Reducing Gang Violence

On Wednesday 5/21, I will be presenting as a panelist at the annual conference on peace building co-sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace / Alliance for Peacebuilding. The topic of our panel will be “Urban Violence and Cross-border Criminal Activity: New Challenges for Peacebuilding.” Below is the (simple) handout I will use for the conference:

USIP handout

A Statistical Argument for Judicial Reform

In an earlier post I lamented the decision of Guatemala’s Attorney General selection committee not to renew the term of the highly successful Paz y Paz and her team. Take a look at the two graphics below, borrowed from the recent blogpost by my good friend, the meticulous political scientist Carlos Mendoza:

homicidios Guate 2001-2013

The homicide rate for Guatemala as a nation (green), for the department of Guatemala (red), and the municipality of Guatemala (blue).

Above: The conviction rate for homicides in Guatemala from 2009-2012.

Above: The conviction rate for homicides in Guatemala from 2009-2012.

Notice that the homicide rate in Guatemala was halved at the same time as the conviction rate for homicide in the country as a whole (but with a strong focus on Guatemala City homicides) was more than doubled. Obviously, there is more to reducing violence than successfully convicting those who participate in it, but it would be difficult to find a stronger argument for investing in judicial reform and professionalization of prosecution (including the protection of witnesses) than that represented in these two graphics. Guatemala still has a long way to go with regard to stemming the tide of criminal violence, but that it has made progress — and that some of the credit lies with observable improvements in the justice system — should not be doubted.