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.

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.