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Fresh thinking about gangs

By Charo Quesada

As president of Suspect Entertainment, Manuel Jiménez produces films, videos and advertisements, and hires young people who would like to be actors. Based in Hollywood, California, his company specializes in “hard-to-find ethnic talent.” In most cases, this means young men and women from the world of violent gangs. Jiménez offers them jobs as extras and then—if they have enough interest and talent—he tries to get them hired as actors.

For the last seven years, Jiménez has been successfully rehabilitating members of violent Los Angeles street gangs. He discussed his own past at the Conference on Youth Gang Violence held recently at the headquarters of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in Washington, D.C. “I saw a lot of people die during my ten years as a gang member, I’ve got scars from bullet wounds and razorblades all over my body,” he said. “I got sick of it and decided to look for a way out. Now I want to offer these kids an opportunity.”

An institutional problem. The Hollywood-style turnaround in Jiménez’s life—he now sports elegant suits and is quick to hand out business cards for his company—is what experts who spoke at the conference would like to see happen to thousands of young Latin American men and women who today are trapped in a spiral of violence. This is why PAHO, the Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence (IACPV), the Due Process of Law Foundation and the Washington Office on Latin America decided to organize a conference of government and civil-society institutions with experience in this area.

Contrary to the popular belief that gangs are a recent phenomenon, speakers at the conference called them an old problem “that is not the result of civil wars or deportations from the United States or poverty conditions,” according to sociologist José Miguel Cruz of the Universidad de Centroamérica in El Salvador. “They’re not the poorest of the poor,” he continued, “and Nicaragua, which experienced armed conflict, has a considerably lower incidence than does El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.”

The roots of the problem must be sought elsewhere. “Youth violence begins with exclusion, with the lack of economic opportunity, with dropping out of school,” said Ernesto Bardales of Jóvenes Hondureños Adelante (“Honduran Youth Advance”). “It’s an institutional problem. We don’t have practically oriented youth policies in Honduras, even though the need for them has been recognized publicly.”

One after another, representatives of municipalities, law enforcement agencies, and civil society organizations, called for new government policies and suitable responses. “Gangs pose a challenge to public health, to security and to development in the Americas,” said Lainie Reisman of the IACPV. “The Central American countries in particular are being challenged to respond to this problem respect human rights and current laws.”

Wrong answers. The conference participants’ harshest criticism was directed toward certain governments and toward the media in general. Both were reproached for “criminalizing” gang-related issues. “The worst thing is not that the problem is being politicized, but the way people are trying to resolve it,” Bardales said. “Some governments today are adopting repressive reforms of constitutional guarantees. The practice of humiliating and torturing these young people and having it all be legal is becoming institutionalized.” Recent initiatives known as “Mano Dura” (“Firm Hand”) and “Plan Escoba” (“Plan Clean Sweep”) that use the concept of “national security” to “make war on young people” were cited.

The media were also criticized for devoting too much time and space to the topic of crime. “We have to call attention to the way the media cover juvenile violence and their tendency to see the problem as exclusively criminal,” said Hamyn Gurdián, chief police commissioner of Nicaragua. “Repression sells better ,” he added. “It’s a lot harder to sell prevention.”

Nothing irritates University of Southern California emeritus professor Dr. Malcolm Klein more than the notion that gang members are violent creatures whose only goal is to join together to commit criminal or illegal acts. “The objective of these gangs is to get the kind of mutual social support they’re not getting elsewhere,” he said. “It’s not the crime itself.”

Most people think that the personal experiences of these young men and women are what gets them thrown out of their homes and makes them identify with gang members who have similar problems. “They come from dysfunctional families, broken homes, single-mother , with strong histories of child abuse, negligence separation,” said Cruz. “They think that in the street they can at least fight back, something they can’t do at home.”

On top of that are disorganized urban growth, social exclusion processes stemming from lack of opportunities, problems of identity that derive from not having childhood role models, a culture that legitimizes violence and is very permissive with regard to firearms (El Salvador is the seventh-largest handgun importer in the world), and the dynamics of violence and drugs in the streets. “The moment they’re expelled from school becomes the definitive step toward gang ,” Cruz explained. “Kids don’t have another alternative.”

The IDB agrees with this criticism. “Very often, these repressive strategies lead to human rights violations,” said Juana Salazar, a social sector specialist in the Bank’s Regional Operations Departement 3. “While the effectiveness of these types of intervetions has not been proven, their economic and social costs are known to be high.”

An integrated plan. Nicaraguan police commissioner Gurdián proposed the “Modelo Preventivo Nacional” (“National Preventive Model”) as a prototype that could be exported to countries north of Central America. Coordinated by the country’s National Police, it has yielded good results. “In Nicaragua, we approach this phenomenon from the community relations and inter-institutional management,” he explained. “More than a thousand police officers work as volunteers in this area, doing preventive projects with families, communities and schools. The police are being proactive, they’re working on getting young people to participate in society.”

Gurdián further noted that 73 percent of Nicaragua’s population is age 30 or younger, while Central America’s regional average is 70 percent. He warned of the serious threat represented by allowing “a sickness that could be prevented by appropriate actions” to spread.

In view of the high prevailing rates of crime and violence and of their impact on young people, the IDB is supporting peace and civic coexistence projects in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Many of these programs have special components designed to deal with gangs. Since the Bank aims to assist in prevention, several of the projects it is financing include measures to help reintegrate former gang members into society. The IDB is also sponsoring in-depth research on this topic based on field surveys. Finally, with the help of NGOs and the Church, the Bank is supporting seed capital projects to help these youths start their own microenterprises.

“We have to create more visibility for this issue and present it with a distinct voice,” said IACPV member Rodrigo Guerrero. “The cost of intervening late is too high. violence has come to represent some 15 percent of national GDP. We have to start preventive activities with a positive approach and move this debate to all of Central America, where local governments play a crucial role in dealing with this problem. And we have to make some radical changes. We’ve got to standardize criteria, methodology and responses.”

“We need to understand young people in general,” Bardales concluded.

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