New Three-part (Short) Video Documentary Series


Part I: The Gangs

Part II: The Researcher

Part III: The Pastor

Bill Gentile, former Newsweek correspondent and current professor of communications at American University, accompanied me for a couple of weeks in January of 2013. He worked together with Esther Gentile to edit and produce a short documentary series called “God and Gangs: Criminal Violence and Religion in Guatemala.” Here is his description of the videos:

In Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, a wave of criminal violence has replaced the politically-motivated violence of the 1980s and early 90s. With thousands of members, transnational youth gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang now pose a significant threat to citizen security and the country’s weak and corrupt institutions. For many of Guatemala’s youth, there seems to be no way out of this vicious cycle of violence. Recent research, however, shows that Evangelical churches, particularly Pentecostals, are engaging in ministries aimed at rescuing and rehabilitating gang members and providing them with a community of support as they reintegrate into Guatemalan society.
This series of three short videos (1. “The Gangs”; 2. “The Researcher”; and 3. “The Pastor”) sketches the context of gang violence in Guatemala and highlights the role of religion as a potential source for both individual and social transformation. The series profiles the work of sociologist Robert Brenneman as he interviews former gang members who have exited the criminal world by converting to Pentecostalism. These videos were produced and directed by American University School of Communication Professor Bill Gentile as part of a project on religious responses to violence carried out by the AU Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS). For ongoing project developments, see:

The Truth about San Pedro Sula: Part II


This cartoon, published in the July 31st issue of el Tiempo, refers to the current wave of liquidación in the Honduran government’s mad dash to sell off land, highways, and drilling rights. It reads:

Bargains! Get them before their gone!

Last week I wrote a post arguing that PBS had unnecessarily sensationalized and miscaracterized the violence in San Pedro Sula in its article “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’ in City Called the Most Dangerous.” I have yet to receive a response to my message sent to the producers of The News Hour.

Although I am frustrated with the sensationalism that often surrounds cities like San Pedro, I want to make it clear that all is not well in Honduras—and certainly not in the northern industrial city of San Pedro Sula. Although the province of Cortes, where SPS is located, is surpassed in its homicide rate by the coastal region of Atlántida, SPS still is a rough and chaotic city where violence is all too common. This was made clear to me by a street scene I witnessed on Saturday morning, just a few hours before I left the country. After going out in search of breakfast—my favorite, a breakfast baleada and a fresh fruit smoothie—I was returning to the room where I had been staying at a church compound near the city center when two young men nearly ran me over as they crossed Avenida Junior. The light had just changed and one young man was nearly run over by a car that had started to advance. He made it across, but just barely. Two or three seconds later I was nearly toppled a second time by a young woman who was shouting and gesturing at the running boys. In a moment, I realized what was happening, the woman was screaming for help and shouting “¡Ladrones!” I watched as one of the boys turned a corner at the far end of the block but the young man who had crossed to the other side was not as lucky. A few men had managed to corner him and within seconds a group of pedestrians had managed to grab the boy of perhaps 17 years and hold him while the woman searched his pockets and retrieved what I would learn shortly thereafter was the cell phone that the teen had snatched from her ear as she conversed.

My first response was to breathe a sigh of relief for the woman, who, due to the quick work of those who had heard her, had been able to get back what belonged to her. But my relief quickly turned to concern and then anxiety as the woman began, encouraged by the bystanders, to deliver multiple blows to her assailant. Within moments the boy’s hands were bound behind his back and the blows continued but now some of the bystanders were taking turns. Soon he was on his knees and the woman who’d been robbed took turns with others, kicking him in the face and the torso. By now I was beginning to feel light-headed. I was feeling that strange embodied sensation of realizing that one ought to be doing something—anything but pacing in a small circle on the corner. And yet I felt paralyzed and self-conscious, afraid for my own pellejo should the crowd turn on me. I meekly suggested to another onlooker who stood next to me, “Look, this isn’t the way to handle things. Why doesn’t someone just call the police?”

The young bystander replied in a congenial tone, “Oh, don’t worry, the police are on their way but in the meantime. . .” and if he finished the sentence, I didn’t catch it and it didn’t matter because his point was clear: the kid needs to get what’s coming to him.

Someone else, someone with more courage and someone less skittishly self-aware, might have acted, intervening on behalf of the young boy. Although it is true that he was a “thief” caught in the act, this public beating was both cruel and unjust—a penalty far beyond the proportions of the crime itself, and dangerous to everyone involved. But there I stood, the  dithering gringo sociologist. Fortunately, the intensity of the beating began to subside and some of the bystanders began to go about their way. When I saw the boy stand up—still bound and now bloodied but conscious and walking—I decided that I could continue on may way as well. My room and the safety of the church compound were just steps away and I had been warned by multiple Hondurans that going out was risky. But several moments later, from the window of my upstairs room, I heard shouts again, this time from a auto-body shop across the street. “Let him have it! Attaway lady! Let’er rip!” The “police” had indeed arrived, only it was not actual police officers who had shown up but very young army soldiers dressed in fatigue. They held the boy, standing still so that the woman could get in a few more punches. A new crowd was forming and for the second time traffic was slowing to a stop while the scene unfolded. And then, a few moments later, the woman was on her way and the military pick-up had taken the boy. The shouts settled down and traffic resumed. “Justice” had apparently been served.

I tell this story here in part as a confession. I wish I had more courage in moments like these. But there is another facet of this experience I want to point out. This scene of street theater/justice is indicative of the frustration that exists in Honduran society today. Many Hondurans are so fed up with a corrupt and ineffective justice system that they believe it important to get justice whenever, and wherever one can. And participating in an event like this feels good. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine that there was a belief among the encouragers—who probably saw this as an opportunity for entertainment—that the victim had a “right” to take out her anger in physical aggression on the victim. That visiting blow after blow on her assailant would somehow make her “whole” again. Indeed, even the soldiers saw it as part of their duty or opportunity to begin the process of “justice” immediately. Theirs was not a duty to participate in a formal, circumscribed role within the legal process of delivering justice, but rather to help “teach the thief a lesson” right here, right now.  Doubtless, the military heightened its reputation in the whole event. The army has been growing in popularity as  one of the major presidential candidates has recently announced his plans to create a new military patrolling police of six thousand strong should he become president. Never mind that soldiers have zero training in gathering and processing intelligence—or for that matter in following legal procedures during an arrest. Never mind that the military spokesman himself brags to the press that soldiers are trained “to act, not to ask questions.” It is this very reticence to follow strict legal procedures that can increase their popularity within an exasperated Honduran populace. It would be easy to condemn this public justice event as the expression of an “uncivilized” and “uneducated” citizenry but we must bear in mind that exasperation can quickly boil over into outrage, and outrage into violence.

Ultimately, if Honduras is to bring down its astronomical homicide rate (already at 84/100,000 in 2011), it must invest in the justice system, not just police officers and certainly not a new corps of military police. A legal system costs money—especially when it has been neglected for so many years. And right now, Honduras is undergoing one of the most serious economic and political crises of its crisis-ridden history. Will the elections be a time of soul-searching and straight talk about economic inequality and underfunded and pilfered state agencies, or simply more of the same macho bandwagoneering? So far, the pre-candidacy race gives very little cause for hope. And the cartoon at the top of this post reveals what’s at stake. Honduras, the banana republic, is once again up for sale to the highest–or maybe just the most well-connected bidder.

The Truth about San Pedro Sula: Part I

On Monday, PBS ran a story on San Pedro Sula, Honduras called “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’ in Honduran City Known as Most Dangerous Place.” Besides being very low-quality documentary film, the piece has huge, and dangerous errors in it. I am currently conducting research on the gangs in San Pedro, taking the bus, taxis, and my own two feet to get around town. It’s certainly not Oslo here but neither is all hell breaking loose as the documentary tries to claim, and the gangs are surely (and quite demonstrably) NOT behind most of the violence in this country. Thus, I just wrote this paragraph of protest to the executive editor:
Dear Executive Producer,
A friend recently sent me the PBS piece called “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’  in City Known as Most Dangerous Place” and I must confess that I was terribly disappointed with the quality of the piece and , frankly, angered by the dangerous inaccuracies it promoted. I am a sociologist who has researched and published on the gangs of Central America (see my book “Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America” published by Oxford University Press in 2011), including the gangs of San Pedro Sula, where I am currently conducting new research. While it is true that violence is a serious problem in San Pedro, it is an egregious mistake to report that the youth/street gangs are behind most of this violence. It is absolutely essential that you make a distinction between “drug cartels” and youth gangs. By confusing these two and referring indiscriminately to “drug gangs” and “gangs” the filmmaker created the dangerous misperception that young gang members from marginalized communities “control” the city. This assertion is absolutely false and, while the gang leaders are of course perfectly pleased to be portrayed as such, it puts young boys in the gang or sympathizing with the gang, in grave danger. Nor does it help resolve a complex situation in which drug cartels operate with impunity within vast rural areas of the country. (Another error in the title of the report is the assertion that San Pedro is the most dangerous area of the country. It is not. By simply accessing the publicly available Honduran Violence Observer (compiled by the Honduran National University and funded by the U.N.) one can observe that Atlantida, not Cortes (the area where San Pedro is located) is the province with the highest homicide rate in Honduras. Atlantida, a coastal region with no major city, does not have a major gang presence in it. More evidence that the piece you aired on Tuesday is false and misleading by stating that the gangs are behind most or all of the violence.
I expect MUCH better, more informed journalism from PBS. Please contact me with any responses or questions.

Encuentro para la Paz

Foto Final_3

La semana pasada tuve la oportunidad de participar como uno de los organizadores de un enceuntro llamado “El Papel de la Iglesia ante la Violencia en Mesoamérica: Modelos y experiencias de paz en contextos de conflicto y violencia.” Durante tres días se reunieron cuarenta personas de distintos ministerios y proyectos involucrados en enfrentar la violencia en su diversidad de formas en Mesoamérica. Abajo he incluido un par de párrafos sacados de la carta de invitación que mandamos de parte de las dos instituciones organizadoras–el seminario SEMILLA (con sede en Guatemala) y el instituto CLALS de American University (con sede en Washington, D.C.) explicando un poco sobre el contexto y el razonamiento de crear y prepara el evento:

Todos sabemos que nuestros queridos países han sido profundamente afectados por olas consecutivas de violencia de distintos sectores. En los años ochenta, los conflictos tomaron una índole política e ideológica. En los noventa y los 2000, la violencia y la inseguridad no se apagaron, sino que cambiaron de forma, renaciendo en el seno de los barrios pobres con jóvenes marginados y condenados por los demás. Actualmente la violencia juvenil compite con una nueva ola de violencia para controlar el narcotráfico y el mercado oscuro de productos ilegales y de migrantes. Para muchas personas—incluso para muchos miembros de nuestras iglesias y parroquias—la violencia es el problema más preocupante no solo para la nación, sino para sus propias vecindades.


¿Qué hace la iglesia frente a esta situación? En este taller-congreso exploraremos juntos, ¿Qué ha hecho la iglesia? Si bien es cierto que muchas iglesias han ignorado la realidad de la violencia, refugiándose en un espiritualismo alejado de la realidad social, también es cierto que hay otras iglesias y comunidades de fe que, desde su fe cristiana, han hecho aportes decisivos hacia el trabajo de promover la transformación de personas y comunidades afectadas por la violencia.

Honestamente, los organizadores no estábamos tan seguros si el programa — que consistía en darles oportunidad a cada participante a reflexionar sobre los logros, las sorpresas, y las lecciones aprendidos en el camino de trabajar en la construcción de paz — llenaba las expectativas o no de los invitados. Por eso fue muy agradable e inspirador encontrar que entre los participantes, existía mucho concuerdo en que la “nueva” violencia en mesoamerica y la capacidad de las iglesias de nombrar y enfrentarla sí es un tema de gran importancia.

Hubieron muchos momentos de aprendizaje y de inspiración pero quizas tres momentos que sirvieron de mucho fueron

  1. Cuando el Padre Dennis Leder, S.J., dio una reflexión sobre “Una espiritualidad para la paz.” Me dejó muy desafiado con su aclaración sobre las idolatrías de hoy. Dijo que, “Las idolatrías de nuestra época también piden su tributo de sangre.” En otras palabras, la adoración del dinero y el estatus siempre tiene un precio (un precio que se ve en los altos niveles de violencia generada por el avaricio del narcotráfico, la extorsión de vecinos y de migrantes por las maras, y el tráfico de sexo y en la falta de conciencia de todos los ciudadanos que no denuncian estas prácticas).
  2. Cuando los participantes de Mexico compartieron en una “Mesa de Reflexión” sobre la violencia contra los migrantes Centroamericanos en Mexico — tanto los que están en camino como los que se han decidido a quedar. Yo ya había oido sobre los abusos y las violencias que experimentan estas personas al cruzar el pais vecino, pero no estaba enterado de lo profundo y enraizado que están estas practicas y lo enraizado que estan dentro del sistema política de Mexico. Por otro lado fue alentadora saber del gran trabajo de acompañamiento y de concientización que hacen los religiosos y otros líderes de los albergues.
  3. Cuando los participantes crearon una “red” simbólica al pasar una bola de hilado de colores contando cada uno lo que había aprendido en el encuentro y también lo que llevaba. En el encuentro habían personas de iglesias protestantes, Menonitas, Pentecostales, y Católicos Romanos — cosa que no pasa con frecuencia en ésta región de competencia eclesial — y por eso fue impresionante ver a las personas compartir experiencias con transparencia y pasión.

Seguramente otras personas llevaron otras impresiones y desafíos. Hubo mucha oportunidad de ser impactado y desafiado por el trabajo y entrego de diferentes personas desde Mexico hasta Colombia. Pero quizás el punto más importante del evento era el darnos cuenta de lo entretejido que están las violencias en Centroamérica y el reconocimiento de la capacidad de personas de muy diferentes contextos en enfrentarlas con una diversidad de métodos y herramientas. Espero (y confío) en que ésto no será la última reunión de este tipo.

A Truce in Guatemala?

On Friday, elPeriódico ran a cover story announcing that the Organization of American States has been pressing for a truce between rival gangs in Guatemala. The news is not too surprising since the OAS has been an outspoken supportor of the gang truce in El Salvador from the beginning–even going so far as to formally visit imprisoned gang leaders in that country. Today, several Guatemalan experts and/or important folks (like the president of the chamber of commerce) weighed in on the proposal, most of them expressing caution but some, like Emilio Goubaud, proposing optimism. The trouble is that even in El Salvador, the truce has been enormously controversial, oddly enough, even though police and health ministry officials report that homicides have fallen by 50-60% since the truce went into effect.

Although I have expressed some support for the Salvadoran truce, especially in the beginning, thoughtful people have raised some important questions about that process and the outcomes it has generated. (For example, Jeannette Aguilar has pointed out that in 2011, the year immediately prior to the truce, the Salvadoran police’s own crime statistics office estimated that no more than 26% of the homicides in the country were gang-driven. How a gang truce could cut the homicide rate in half is still an open question.) In addition, a very recent spike in homicides have raised even more doubts in the public.

Personally, I don’t think such issues are reason enough to dismiss the truce or the drop in violence (even if the lasting impact is a homicide reduction closer to 30%). But Guatemalan’s should keep in mind that the gang scene in that country is less organized than in El Salvador. My research in 2007 and 2008 led me to conclude that Guatemalan gangs were only loosely organized. It would surprise me to see a gang truce among Guatemalan gang leaders that could result in a measurable reduction of violence among gang youth at the level of the neighborhood clica. Thus, my advice to political and civil society leaders interested in pursuing a gang truce would be to aim their efforts at the local level and, as always, to provide individual gang members with realistic options for an honorable exit from a violent lifestyle. It may be necessary to have contact with the palabreros (higher-ups) in the gang in order to give local gang leaders and members the courage to move ahead, but the focus should generally be with local cells/clicas and those involved in the process should be individuals who are known in the community.

Finally, the only way a truce–be it local or national–can work is if individual gang leaders and members can have some level of assurance that leaving the gang or its violent lifestyle will not make them easy targets for enemy gangs or for social cleansing. Thus, if the government wants to encourage gang members to leave the gang it must provide some assurance that the killing of gang members will be investigated and that the public ministry will put forth real effort to bring  cases of murdered gang youth to trial. For as long as it continues to be “open season” on gang members or “suspected” gang members (i.e. anyone with a tattoo), and gang deaths continue to go uninvestigated, it will remain difficult to convince gang youth to renounce violence and turn over their weapons. After all, even the most “worn out” gang member knows that leaving the gang and/or its violence involves exposing himself to an angry society. In short, if we want them to stop killing each other, and stop extorting their neighbors, we need to provide them with at least a minimal guarantee of safety and the possibility of legitimate employment.

Review of Adiós Niño

In May of this year, Duke University Press finally released Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death. The book is written well–a quick read at just under 150 pages of text–and the author, Deborah Levenson, has plenty of experience with the topic. In fact, Levenson helped author one of the earliest empirical studies of the gangs of Guatemala City in 1988 when she worked at the AVANCSO center for the social sciences. One of the most important strengths of the book is its historical perspective. Levenson compares the gangs of the 1980s with the gangs of the 90s onward and concludes that the gangs she studied in the 1980s were vastly different from the far more violent gangs that affiliated with the transnational/Latino gangs of the M-18 and the MS-13. In the 1980s, Levenson argues, the gang members she intereviewed had found a sense of liberation in their gang identity and many attached a political edge to their gang activity. Not so with the gang youth of today, few of whom were willing to talk with the author as did the earlier gang youth. She calls these new “maras” the “gangs to die for”–a sharp contrast with the more locally-based maras from an earlier time–and she works hard to make the case that the civil war, which reached its peak in the early 1980s, was the key contributor to this metamorphasis.

It is certainly true that the gangs underwent a transformation in Guatemala during the early 1990s. Many of the ex-gang members I interviewed in 2007 and 2008 spoke of a gang “evolution” that brought an escalation of violence, the introduction of “la renta” security taxes, and, importantly, a narrowing of the possibility for leaving or “retiring” from the gang. It’s also hard to contradict the notion that the war contributed to the evolution of the gangs. Indeed, there is little in Guatemalan society that was unaffected by 36 years of dirty warfare. But Levenson seems, in my view, a little overcommitted to drawing a straight line from the war to the transformation of the gangs. After all, if the war–which had essentially been “won” by the military by the mid-1980s–were the most important factor in creating the hyper-violent maras of today, it is difficult to understand why Honduras should have what is by most estimates, a greater problem with gang violence. Sure the war made a difference–thousands of children were orphaned by the war and some of these orphans ended up in a gang. But I am convinced that other socio-historical factors were just as, if not more important to creating a situation in which nominally delinquent youth gangs gave way to seriously violent ones. Chief among these factors are the rise of narco-traffic (which occasionally employed gang members, paying them in product and obliging them to monetize such payment by creating a local market for crack cocaine) and the colonization of the local street gangs by MS-13 and M-18 members, including some deportees, but mostly among those coming across the border from El Salvador. Both the narcotraffickers and the transnational gang missionaries greatly enhanced access to small arms, which were pouring into the Central American market through legal and non-legal channels. True, some of the military’s weapons have made it into the hands of the gang members but I don’t believe this channel was nearly as important as simple proximity to the largest small arms producer in the world (the U.S.). 

Levenson also likes to critique Pentecostalism as a key culprit in keeping the Guatemalan government from addressing gang violence in ways that could be effective in the long run. She argues that after the Christian Democratic party tried half-heartedly and failed to address the nascent gang violence in the country, “the care of needy and troubled youth was turned over to Pentecostals” who then “assumed a role as social engineer” (107). This sentence, I’m afraid, greatly overstates the power and influence–not to mention the unity–of “the Pentecostals.” To her credit, the author does briefly acknowledge in the last chapter that some Pentecostal gang ministries appear to have improved upon their fire-and-brimstone harangues of the past–a caveat that makes room for the possibility that Pentecostals  may not be all alike, nor all completely in the thrall of former dictator and Neopentecostal Christian Rios Montt.

Despite my disagreements with the author on some of these issues, I think Adiós Niño is a worthwhile read and I will assign it in my course on Central America. One of my favorite features of the book is its use of photographs featuring youth both during and after their sojourn in the gang. Unfortunately, we learn that some of these youth have become victims of the violence. And as is typical, we will never know by whom they were killed or why. Such is the life–and death– of the “killable people.” In a country with a “justice” system that investigates precious few murders, and brings to trial even fewer, the death of a former gang member is very, very low on the public ministry’s priority list.