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From gang members to entrepreneurs

A stranger arriving at the Polígono Industrial Don Bosco, a cluster of cinder-block buildings in an impoverished suburb of the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, might never suspect that he is looking at a juvenile detention center.

There are no visible security measures. At 9 a.m. on a weekday morning, youths from the surrounding neighborhood walk in through a wide gate, exchanging greetings with others who live inside the compound. Within minutes the place is alive with the sounds of saws, drills, hammers, printing presses and other machines. Trucks rumble in and out throughout the day, delivering raw materials and picking up freshly baked bread, boxes of children’s shoes, stacks of glossy color posters, racks of new shirts, customized wood cabinets and precision-milled industrial molds.

Perched on the edge of a ravine that serves as the local garbage dump and sewer, the Polígono is an unlikely oasis in one of San Salvador’s poorest and most violent districts. The cloying smell of decomposing garbage is never entirely absent from the compound, which has expanded by gradually covering the accumulated refuse with terraces of concrete and tile. Outside, rival street gangs known as maras wage a permanent battle for control of Comunidad Iberia, a dusty slum with a population of 45,000. People avoid the alleys that mark boundaries between the two dominant gangs, known as Salvatrucha and Calle 18, because of the very real risk of being hit by crossfire.

Almost without exception, the 60 workers in the nine cooperative factories that are crammed inside the Polígono are former members of these two gangs. Around 30 of them are actually serving sentences for murder, rape, assault, drug trafficking or theft. The rest have voluntarily joined the Polígono while continuing to live outside.

The cooperatives do not fit into the traditional notion of job training or piecework for inmates, however. Each one is managed as an autonomous company owned by its employees. The companies must sink or swim based on their ability to compete and generate a profit. Earnings are plowed back into the venture, and any remaining cash is divided proportionately among the employees in a profit-sharing scheme. High standards of craftsmanship, aggressive pricing and flexible production processes are the norm.

The Polígono was founded 13 years ago by José “Pepe” Moratalla, a Spanish Salesian priest. Moratalla’s initial goal was to offer a means of employment and education to Salvadoran street kids in general. But he soon discovered that the maras were so powerful and pervasive that they essentially defined the life choices faced by local youth. At that point Moratalla decided to specifically recruit gang members and offer them a tradeoff: room, board, an apprenticeship and free schooling in exchange for permanently renouncing membership in the maras.

It has turned out to be a fruitful but controversial decision. Although the maras have been feared in El Salvador for several years now, they have recently been put at the center of a heated public debate over the merits of an ambitious judicial reform program agreed to under the 1993 Peace Agreements that ended the country’s civil war. The IDB has been supporting those reforms through a $22 million loan approved in 1996 (See “Trust Me: One country’s battle to make justice work,” IDBAmérica, Nov.-Dec. 1999)

Second chances. As part of the reform, new juvenile and penal codes have for the first time guaranteed special sentencing guidelines and separate penitentiary facilities for juvenile delinquents. The new codes also embrace the notion of reeducating and rehabilitating underage offenders, who in the past were simply jailed with adult criminals. Under an agreement with El Salvador’s court system, the Polígono has become an occasional destination for convicted youths that show exceptionally good behavior in the country’s juvenile detention centers.

A transfer to the Polígono is so coveted among imprisoned youths that preventing escapes is a non-issue. “They could walk out if they wanted to,” says Moratalla, “but they would rather stay.”

Moratalla acknowledges that there are influential voices in Salvadoran society who oppose the reforms and would prefer to keep all gang members behind bars. “There is a conservative sector in our society that does not understand that an adolescent who has committed a crime is still not fully defined as a person,” says Moratalla. “He can still be recovered, but he needs a special environment for that to happen.”

Moratalla’s concept of that special environment emphasizes discipline, self-reliance, education, cooperation and enterprise. He eschews the traditional notion of vocational training for juvenile offenders because in his experience these programs rarely succeed in putting the graduates in viable jobs. Instead, anyone who joins the Polígono must join one of its nine cooperative companies as an apprentice employee and demonstrate the ability to master a skill. Since the companies must compete in the local marketplace, the skills have to be real.

Consider the case of the Polígono’s industrial molds operation. Under the leadership of Víctor Rodríguez, a 32-year-old former gang member who joined the Polígono 13 years ago, it has grown to a 15-employee cooperative that gets orders from all over El Salvador. The workers have trained themselves in the use of three-dimensional design software and have used their own savings to purchase computer-controlled lathes and drills that allow them to churn out high-precision molds on short notice. Recently Rodríguez was approached by a large industrial firm that offered to double his salary and put him in charge of a whole division. “He told them he would rather run his own company!” recalls Moratalla.

Planning ahead. Moratalla also wants his charges to think about how they will organize their lives when they leave the Polígono, typically after age 21. In addition to publicly severing their ties to a mara, youths who wish to join the Polígono are required to recruit a group of sponsors who pledge to make a fixed monthly deposit into a bank account. That account is held in the young person’s name until he or she is 21. “They are not allowed to touch the money, and if they leave the Polígono, take drugs, fight, or move in with a girlfriend or boyfriend before they’re 21, they lose the entire amount,” says Moratalla. The concept has two goals. “First, the sponsors offer the youth a kind of support he probably never received from a family. By following his progress and investing in him they can begin to foster a sense of dignity and self-esteem.”

The second goal is for each youth to accumulate a modest amount of capital with which to start life after they are released or voluntarily leave the program. “Think about it,” says Moratalla. “How are these guys going to enter a democracy when they leave here if they don’t have anything? The fact that they’ve learned a skill isn’t going to make much difference if they can’t find housing or pay for college tuition. So this is money that they can save up and use for a down payment on a house or to start a small business.”

Rounding up a group of financial sponsors might seem like a tall order for ex-gang members covered with tell-tale tattoos. Yet Moratalla says that despite the odds, nearly all of his charges find relatives, teachers, government officials or friends who pledge to become sponsors. “We don’t want people here who aren’t resourceful,” he jokes. “A few of our boys have already built up more than $1,000 in their accounts.”

Recently, a group of four Polígono members who had been trained in its metal furniture-making cooperative decided to pool their savings and open an independent metalworking shop. For Moratalla, this is the ultimate evidence that gang members deserve a second chance. “This is proof that these boys can rejoin society not just as people who have stopped committing crimes, but as dynamic agents of development who can contribute to the country’s welfare and growth.”

Over the years, the Polígono has grown with financial help from numerous Spanish charitable organizations and international institutions. Today, the compound is in the process of building a multistory educational facility to house an academy that already serves 400 children and adolescents. The Polígono has also been working with an association of 200 microentrepreneurs who attend weekly meetings at the Polígono to learn business and marketing techniques firsthand—from former gang members.

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