Introduction Excerpt

From Homies and Hermanos. Used with permission.


Introduction: JJ’s First Marriage

To get out of the gang alive is hard, HARD. Our leader, a ranflero [gang lord] once told me, “Here, there is only one way to get out, and that’s in your pine-box suit.”1

—Neftalí, former member of Guatemalan White Fence

Tattooed in bold cursive script across the shoulders of Juan José Tobar2 are the words, “Why should I fall in love with life when I’m already married to death?”3 Juan José, or “JJ” as his friends today call him, spent sixteen years as a member and then leader of a violent Guatemala City cell of the transnational gang called the “White Fence.” The twenty- eight-year-old Guatemalan has spent years of his life in Guatemala City’s juvenile detention centers, prisons, and hospitals and has sur- vived three gunshots, nine stabbings, and the complete failure of one lung due to substance abuse. He candidly admits, though without any pride or pleasure, to having killed or ordered the deaths of multiple individuals, mostly rival gang members. These killings are symbolically represented by three tattooed tears underneath his right eye—the gang equivalent of a “stripe” for eliminating a rival. Tattooed on his eyelids are the letters “W” and “F.” Beneath the slogan on his shoulders, a mural of tattoos on his torso and arms depict the gang’s ethos, a visual creed composed of female genitalia, gang “homies” dressed in the “cholo” style, and marijuana leaves, as well as the skulls, graves, and flames that represent his gang “matrimony.” But now JJ’s tattoos speak differently than they used to. Today they speak of a former life—one that ended three years ago when JJ took the dangerous step of leaving the gang for good. JJ is an ex-gang member.
When I first met JJ it was at his new place of employment, a computer hardware wholesaler located on a main thoroughfare of Guatemala’s upscale “Zona Viva.” Our meeting had been arranged by cell phone through the recommendation of a former member and cell leader of the gang, Mara Dieciocho, Antonio “the Bread Maker.” Antonio’s brother, also a former gang member, had been killed only two months earlier by the opposing gang, Mara Salvatrucha. JJ himself had warned me over the phone that we would have to conduct the interview at his place of work since he recently received a death threat and could not venture outside the warehouse compound except to go directly to his home in another area of the city. In his home neighborhood, he later informed me, he feels safe, but on public transportation or on the street, he always has to keep an eye out.

In the taxi on the way to the meeting, I worried about what to expect. My wife, like most Guatemalans, fears gang members, “reformed” or not, and worried that I had not taken enough precautions this time in vetting the interviewee. She insisted that I call just before and immedi- ately after the interview to let her know I was safe. While most of my interviews with ex-gang members so far had been arranged through trusted gatekeepers, through professionals in substance abuse, or at rehabilitation centers or tattoo-removal clinics, this meeting had been set up after a short telephone conversation in which JJ, in his husky voice and direct manner, asked about my study and what kind of ques- tions I wanted to ask and then told me to meet him at work on the fol- lowing day. When I arrived at the warehouse and inquired at the security gate, a small, thin man emerged from the building wearing long sleeves under his dark company polo and a hat pulled low over his eyes. Although his coworkers are aware of his past and treat him cordially, JJ wears a baseball cap and long sleeves whenever he leaves the home in order to hide his tattoos and reduce the risk of being spotted by a former enemy or by off-duty police officers. He wants to avoid the fate of so many other ex-gang members, killed on account of decisions made in a former life. The company manager, upon learning of the nature of my interview had offered the use of a plush boardroom to carry out the interview. The boss, a soft-spoken Guatemalan about JJ’s age but with lighter skin and a degree in engineering, had hired JJ six months earlier because he is a rare businessman who believes in giving ex-gang mem- bers a second chance. In the boardroom, JJ began to tell the story of his life in the gang—a story alternately dramatic and tragic, all too common in the barrios of Central America. He spoke slowly at first but after a time he began to relax, demonstrating eloquence well beyond his three years of formal schooling:

I entered the gang not because anyone told me to join but because my family was so poor that they could not provide me with an education, shoes, or clothing. And in addition to being poor, they treated me hor- ribly. My mother would beat me. My brother would kick me. They would torture me—a six-year-old—and it made me look to the streets for refuge.

Of his immediate family members, JJ spoke well only of his father, who was killed by poisoning when JJ was only eight years old. When that happened, “It was as if everything had died,” he said. “I saw him, dead on December 25, 1989 and I got on my knees and promised that I would avenge his death. It was a promise I made to myself.” It was a promise that the young gang member would fulfill only a few years later. Originally from Escuintla, a rough-and-tumble industrial town about an hour south of Guatemala City, JJ moved with his abusive older brother to the capital after his father’s death. There he hoped to finally be able to go to school and “become someone—maybe a doctor or a lawyer.” But the abuse continued and even worsened. “My brother wore cowboy boots and he would kick me in the face until my forehead bled. I couldn’t stand it so I took to the streets. There I found friends, companions who listened to me. They would say, ‘Yeah man. What a jerk. Why don’t you hang out with us?’”

But their moral support also carried an expectation. When JJ was nine, a group of older gang members asked him to “prove” his loyalty by robbing a corner store using a.38 revolver. Although the request appears to have been as much a dare as an assignment, JJ nevertheless decided to take the opportunity to show his mettle. He burst into the store, aimed his gun at the young man behind the counter, and told him to give him the money in the cash register.

“Hey you, this is a stick-up!” I said. “Give me your money please, but right now!” The guy started to laugh. When he started to laugh, all at once I saw in his face the face of my brother and then I snapped and started shouting, “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!” I’m not sure what he saw in my face but right then he opened the drawer and gave me the money and told me, “Get out of here but don’t kill me.” I went back to the gang and that’s when they knew I had potential. They started taking me with them to rob other places and pretty soon they didn’t do the robbing any more. Instead they would send me in to do it. I worked for them. But through this I started catching the vision of the gang.

In the experience of the armed robbery and through the ensuing crimes, JJ was learning how to translate shame from childhood abuse into anger, and anger into intimidation and violence. He was capturing the “vision” of the gang. During the next decade and a half, JJ dedicated himself to expanding this vision. When “Skinny,” the local cell leader who had recruited him was killed, JJ saw his chance to become the new leader or ranflero. He called a meeting where he presented his “creden- tials” as the man for the job.

As a new ranflero I laid out my vision of making my clique the worst of all cliques—the most subversive, the most evil, the most powerful, the most murderous, the one that moved the most drugs and had the most power in prison, the most respected on the outside by all Guatemalans.

By then JJ’s resume was long. He had proven his ability to handle weapons and move drugs. Unimpeded by anyone else, he took the po- sition and immediately began recruiting. Under his charge the cell grew to thirty-four gang members in his own neighborhood and fifteen in a start-up cell in Escuintla. “I started bringing in more people and they weren’t coming in because I was forcing them. The same thing was happening to them that happened to me. They were being abused too. They were looking for attention  and they found it with me. I gave them attention and took an interest in them.” He also gave new names to in- coming members—English nicknames with an oddly affectionate ring. A young girl with striking good looks he called “Baby.” A young boy known for his cleverness he called “Flipper” after the dolphin in the television series.

But as the gang grew so did JJ’s reputation, and his growing notoriety made him a target to both other gangs and the police. His list of enemies grew and the police began arresting him for more and more serious crimes. In prison he continued to direct gang activities and his “homies” brought him news, money, and drugs. After spending several years in and out of juvenile detention and then prison, JJ began to suffer from lung dysfunction due to regular consumption of marijuana and cocaine. Meanwhile his growing list of enemies was making it almost impossible to sleep at night. “I would sleep with three or four weapons by my side. One in my belt, one under my pillow, another under the mattress and sometimes even one in my hand.” Even his mother’s concern had turned to fear. “My mother came to fear me greatly. Greatly. And she decided not to speak to me anymore. She would just give me whatever I asked for and then some.” By the time JJ reached his twenties he had succeeded in establishing “respect”—he was feared by many—but only at the price of trust. Unable to trust or be trusted by anyone, his “marriage to death” had made him the ultimate outsider, cut off from everything but the gang and connected to that institution only through his weapons and his tattoos.


JJ’s descent into criminal violence tracks the wider phenomenon of gangs in Central America in the 1990s. The “White Fence” to which he belonged is a lesser-known group compared with the far more prevalent Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara Dieciocho, but like these gangs, the White Fence traces its roots to the immigrant communities of Southern California (Vigil 1988). These gangs became established and powerful in Central America after a series of deportation initiatives by the Los Angeles Police Department brought thousands of immigrant youth with criminal records back to Central America (Arana 2005; Quirk 2008). The increasing availability of drugs and weapons coupled with minimal social spending and a weak and corrupt police force allowed the gangs to grow exponentially during the 1990s while forging transnational ties through the increase of cell phone communication and migration. This growing efficiency and organization was accompanied by more rigid rules regarding membership. The slogan etched on JJ’s body illustrates one of the major themes characterizing these new “transnational” gangs of Central America—a rule I heard so often that I came to call it “the morgue rule.” Most gang members are told when they join one of Central America’s transnational gang cells, that their new commitment must last hasta la morgue—that is, “all the way to the morgue.” And many Central Americans, both gang members and onlookers, have concluded that the morgue rule is true, believing that “once a gang member, always a gang member.” And yet, here was JJ, fully tattooed and looking very much like a gang member but working, paying bills and helping other youth to leave the gang or stay out altogether. Is it possible to truly leave the gang with no strings attached—to remain safe, leave drugs and violence, find work, start a family, and start over again?

Many would say no. Father José “Pepe” Morataya of San Salvador, a Spanish Salesian who goes by “Padre Pepe” is one of them. Although he has helped a number of gang members leave the gang in the past by teaching them trades such as bread baking or metalwork, he made it very clear to me that he believes that the Salvadoran gangs of today no longer allow for deserters. At best they allow gang members to become what some call pandilleros calmados, or “settled-down gang members” who reduce their criminality and seek reintegration but continue to hold allegiance to the gang and often are expected to continue paying dues for weapons or to help out in the event of a major operation. But for Padre Pepe, severing all ties with the gang by becoming an “ex-gang member” is not an option for the gang youth today. Other experts are nearly as skeptical. The well-known Jesuit sociologist Ricardo Falla likens the gang to “a prison cell with many bars.” Many gang members are trapped by the threat of physical death from the homies who view the exiting gang member as a traitor as well as the threat of a “social death” at the hands of a society that loathes him for what he represents (Cruz and Portillo 1998). For who can trust a gang member who has taken an oath of solidarity, burned his allegiance onto his body, and “married death”? In fact, when I asked a Guatemalan psychiatrist who treats incarcerated gang youth what can be done to help a gang member leave his gang and reintegrate into society, he shook his head in silence for several moments and finally offered a suggestion: “Take them to another planet.”

With a few exceptions, the only alternative “planet” that governments have offered gang members like JJ as an attempt to persuade them to leave the gang is that of the prison. Police and military forces have taken to conducting neighborhood sweeps, which have led to massive arrests often based on little more than the presence of a tattoo. But in Central America’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons, gang members have simply congregated, honing their skills, networking with drug dealers, and directing operations with their homies on the outside. Instead of “corrections” or reform, the prisons have become “graduate schools of crime” where homies enhance their skills and “earn their stripes” by doing time for the gang. Understandably angry about the government’s inability to arrest the spiraling crime in the region, many Central American’s have concluded that the best way to “deal with” the violent and incorrigible gang youth like JJ—especially given his vow of lifelong commitment to the gang—is simply to eliminate them. Evidence of “social cleansing,” or extrajudicial killing of gang members by off-duty police or hit men associated with the military, has begun to mount as bodies of gang members appear daily on the streets, often bearing the marks of torture that hearken back to the political violence of an earlier time (Moser and Winton 2002; Payne 1999; Ranum 2007). In Guatemala, a national newspaper reported in 2007 that 60 percent of Guatemalans polled supported social cleansing as one means of dealing with gang violence (R.M. Aguilar 2007b). Supporters of social cleansing seem to believe in effect, “If the gangs are so enamored of death, then why not let them have it?”

But despite the pessimism on the part of the government, the media, and even some social scientists, and despite ominous warnings from their erstwhile gang mates, JJ and hundreds of others like him have indeed managed to find a way out of the gang leaving violence and drugs behind, land a steady job, and start over. Despite his tattoos and his criminal record, and in spite of the “morgue rule,” JJ has managed to live down his tattoo by “falling in love with life.” But in order to do this, he has done the next best thing to “moving to another planet”—he has become an evangelical Christian. . . .

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