Youth with no future
Central American gangs offer meaning where society has failed

Paul Jeffrey

Henri Aguilar’s entire body was marked by the tattoos he’d acquired while a member of one of Honduras’ notorious street gangs, but inside he was a new man. He’d left the street gang that had once claimed his allegiance, come back to the church of his childhood, got a steady job, married and had a baby girl. He named her Genesis as a sign of his new beginnings.

Mr. Aguilar acknowledged it wasn’t easy to change, in part because few succeeded. “It’s precarious. If they see that you’ve really had a change of heart and become a Christian, you might be ok. I walk a narrow line. I don’t walk around on the street, I don’t smoke or drink, and I don’t visit my old friends,” he said in a May 2 interview in his home in Chamelecón, a sweltering shantytown in northern Honduras.

Mr. Aguilar had attempted to remove the tattoos he’d acquired during eight years in the Salvatrucha Gang, but the repeated acid and laser treatments weren’t very successful, so he finally gave up. While riding his bicycle to the construction site where he worked, he wore long sleeves and a hat pulled down low over his face to hide his past.

On May 7, Mr. Aguilar bicycled home and started to clean up before walking to a nearby church where he was scheduled to read the Psalm during worship. Three masked men burst into his church-built home and shot him dead in front of his wife and his daughter.

Mr. Aguilar’s killing illustrates how hard it is for young men to escape the violent gang subculture that has gripped Central America in the last decade. Created when globalization and poverty were stirred together in the postwar caldron of Central America in the 1990s, gangs have robbed the region’s youth of their future while providing a handy scapegoat for those who benefit from organized violence.

The two principal youth gangs in Central America–the Salvatrucha and the Calle 18 gangs–have their roots in the United States. When hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the 1979-1992 civil war in their country (where the U.S. government backed the government’s brutal military repression), many of the refugees ended up in southern California. On the streets of Los Angeles, disenfranchised Salvadoran youth joined existing gangs or formed new ones in an effort to defend themselves and their burgeoning neighborhoods against other groups.

When the war at home wound down in the early 1990s, they began to be deported back, some directly from prison, even though they often knew little about life in El Salvador. They’d left as babies and grown up on the streets of Los Angeles. So they took the gang culture with them and transplanted it in the fertile soil of postwar El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala. Amidst the high unemployment and urban decay of Central America’s cities, along with the growing lawlessness that was a legacy of wartime impunity, the gangs blossomed, and soon were widely blamed, whether they deserved it or not, for skyrocketing homicide rates and ever more rampant drug abuse.

Most importantly, the gangs grew because they offered disaffected youth a sense of belonging.
“Kids join gangs because something was missing in their families. There was no love in my family, my stepfather abused my mom and me. If kids don’t find love in their house, they’ll go looking for it in the streets,” said Juan Carlos Aguilar, a former gang member in Chamelecón, the Honduran neighborhood where Henri Aguilar (they are unrelated) was killed in May.

“Inside the gangs you become someone, someone important in the neighborhood. They trust you with important tasks with which you have to comply. They give you protection. It’s ironic that adolescents don’t want strict norms or discipline, but they accept the discipline of the gangs, which is very strict, and which they didn’t find in their parents or family,” said Virginia Alfaro, a Catholic lay missioner from Spain who coordinates a prison ministry in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Ms. Alfaro’s work is focused on education, vocational training, legal aid, and scholarships to siblings and children of gang members to keep them from following the same path as their brothers or fathers.

“The future has only three options for many of these youth: hospitalization, imprisonment, or death,” Ms. Alfaro said. “They’ve accepted that fate, and see the choice of giving their freedom or their life for their neighborhood as something positive. But they don’t want their kids to live the same lives. That’s the moment when we can talk with them about the future.”

This difficulty to perceive a positive future is increasingly characteristic of youth throughout Latin America who’ve been marked by the region’s fratricidal violence and social decomposition. And it’s a strong challenge to churches and other groups trying to carve out a space where young people can live unafraid.

Psychologist Stella Duque is a founder of Workshop for Life, a Women’s Division-supported program in Colombia that works with youth who are former combatants or who’ve been displaced by that country’s drug-fueled civil war. She notes that with no end to the war in sight, increasing numbers of youth, both rich and poor, are committing suicide. Churches and other groups need to redouble their efforts, she says.

“If we lose this opportunity we these young people, we lose the country,” she said. “We’ve got to resist. And we’ve got to invite them, the youth, to this work of resistance which is the basis of our hope. If they give up, then what hope do future generations have? Otherwise we’ll just be left with a generation broken by the war, depressed, reared in an environment of disrespect, accustomed to the violation of its rights, a generation forced by the dominant classes to walk submissively with its head down, in anonymity and darkness. We have no choice. We have to resist.”

Violence as government policy

Chamelecón is the sort of stark, postmodern landscape where gangs thrive. Carved out of the jungle and sugar cane plantations on the edge of San Pedro Sula, the prosperous commercial capital of Honduras, Chamelecón is a parallel universe of 130,000 people living in grim poverty at the margins of society. Scattered throughout the threadbare homes and shacks are huge pumps where water is sucked from the ground and piped to the wealthy neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula, yet Chamelecón’s families often go for days with no water at all. Teeming with frustration with an economic model which has widened the gap between rich and poor, Chamelecón is a seedbed rich in the fertile desperation upon which gangs thrive.

And into which the police don’t dare to tread. With gang lookouts on many corners, the police can’t catch anyone by surprise. If they enter at all, it’s with an escort of army troops armed to the teeth. Like megalopolises in Brazil that have been taken over by gangs, this is no longer Honduras; it’s somewhere else.

The authority of the state seems to stop at the edge of Chamelecón. That’s not accidental. The oligarches who have always ruled here don’t want a strong state as it threatens their unrestrained economic hegemony. The United States and international financial organizations, pushing free trade and deregulated markets, demanded reduced government in exchange for softer treatment in paying off war-time debts. As central governments pulled back education, healthcare and other services from places like Chamelecón, the gangs took over.

Yet the transnational nature of the gangs, which still have links with immigrant neighborhoods in the U.S. and which began to communicate more fluidly within the region, alarmed some officials in the U.S. government who started worrying aloud about links to international terrorism, despite the lack of credible evidence. Combined with a perception by many ordinary Central Americans that gangs were an inordinate source of violent crime, a rather handy scapegoating that diverted attention from criminals well-entrenched in the ranks of government and upper social classes, the U.S. warning about links between the tattooed youth and Al-Qaeda was all it took to get regional governments to crack down. El Salvador and Honduras announced states of emergency–what were localled dubbed as mano dura (clenched fist) campaigns. Laws were passed that made it a crime to have a tattoo. Police and soldiers rounded up thousands of youth and threw them in overburdened prisons.

According to Ms. Alfaro, who has ministered in San Pedro Sula’s prisons for nine years, such heavy-handed policies have only made the problem worse.

“The prisons lack even basic hygiene and there’s not even an attempt at rehabilitation. The more youth they cram into the prisons, the stronger and more violent the gangs became,” said Ms. Alfaro.

“Repression hasn’t stopped them, but instead has simply led them to change how they act. They’re now more clandestine. They decided, ‘If they’re going to arrest us for having tattoos, fine, we won’t have tattoos.’ But they still belong to a gang,” she said.

Honduran prisons are deadly places for gang members. In 2003, 68 youth were killed in a prison riot in La Ceiba. Human rights activists claim the dead were murdered in cold blood. In a similar incident, 107 young people died in a 2004 prison fire in San Pedro Sula.

“If there’s no effort at rehabilitation, then there’s only repression and extermination. Violence in the prisons represents a policy of the government, just as outside the prison social cleansing is state policy,” Ms. Alfaro said.

According to Thomas Goekler, a Catholic priest from Connecticut who works in Chamelecón, the state’s security forces have targeted young people.

“Once we began to get the kids in our neighborhood on their feet, to get them out of the gangs, to have some success, the murders continued, but rather than the gang members killing each other, it was now the police who were killing the kids,” he said.

Father Goekler was the pastoral worker who got Henri Aguilar out of the gang, and the priest says he doesn’t know who killed Mr. Aguilar. It could have been the police, a rival gang, or even his own former gang. He doubts anyone will face charges for the assassination. “No one is ever arrested for killing a gang member,” he said.

In a country where drug traffickers and money launderers have found many accomplices in the country’s political elite, youth have become scapegoats for endemic patterns of corruption, Father Goekler argues. “It’s like the ‘welfare mothers’ in the 1980s for President [Ronald] Reagan. While taxes were being restructured and the rich were getting even richer, he blamed poor women,” he said. “You’ve got to have a scapegoat to divert people’s attention from corruption.”

Working with gangs has become fashionable in recent years, yet many of the programs, including some funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have little positive impact in poor neighborhoods.

“Peace and Living Together,” a highly-touted U.S.-funded Honduran government program designed to undercut gang organizing in poor neighborhoods, was “organized for the rich,” Father Goekler said. “They don’t want kids who can think, who can become change agents, because that would challenge the whole system of corruption. That program was supposed to develop an environment that was good for young people, but instead it has been simply a boondoggle for the country’s security forces, a way for the army and police to make money.”

Ms. Alfaro says that popular conceptions about the gangs as instigators of violence make it easier for the state to carry out repressive policies.

“Almost everyone has been touched in some way by the increasing violence in this society, and the media has fed us a steady line that gang members are responsible, that the youth are bad people, evil people. And sometimes the youth decide to fulfill the role that’s been assigned them. They are both victims and victimizers. But the stronger the repression, the more violently the gangs choose to act,” she said.

With homicide rates in the region climbing to among the highest on the planet, Jeannette Aguilar, director of the Institute on Public Opinion at the Central American University in San Salvador, warns that current governmental approaches to the gangs may lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy with the gangs becoming what society forces them to become.”