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.

Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. — TEDx Talk


Even though my research on gang exit focuses on ex-gang members in Central America–especially those who convert to evangelical-Pentecostal religious faith–and not in the U.S., I am nevertheless a devoted fan of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded the Homeboy Industries organization in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. I have enjoyed immensely his 2010 book “Tattoos on the Heart” and I recently came across a TEDx Talk he gave last year in Southern California. Boyle’s words, his style of delivery, and his demeanor make him, in my opinion, one of the most powerful speakers I have seen (and so far, I have only seen him on the screen, not in person). I highly recommend this 20-minute presentation delivered without notes in a pea-green cardigan. Although the organization he has founded is very, VERY different from the evangelical-Pentecostal ministries I visited in Central America (and NYU Press will soon release a new book by sociologist Ed Flores comparing Homeboy Industries with the Pentecostal organization Victory Outreach), Boyle’s diagnosis of the roots of the gang’s attraction (and subsequently, his prescription for reducing gang violence) share similar themes with my own work, especially regarding the topic of shame and respect. My favorite line from his TED Talk comes at the 12-minute mark when describing the obstacles to “feeling one’s worth” as a human being: “Sometimes you have to reach in and dismantle messages of shame and disgrace that get in the way so that the soul can feel its worth.” Quite beautiful but also true. Boyle writes and speaks in a different style and format compared with my sociological book, but I am, in many ways, profoundly humbled and inspired by his words and his stories.

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.