Why It’s So Hard to Leave El Salvador’s Gangs: An Interview With José Miguel Cruz

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Around 85 percent of gang members in El Salvador have thought about distancing themselves from gang life or leaving entirely. But with few reported success stories, little is known about this process. In March 2017, a study by Florida International University (FIU) examined the dynamics behind the dangerous choice to abandon gang life and the challenges faced by ex-members seeking to reintegrate into society.

InSight Crime spoke to José Miguel Cruz, the lead investigator of the report, to explore this subject further. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

IC: In terms of methodology, you conducted dozens of interviews and surveyed more than 1,000 active and retired gang members. Nearly 70 percent of them said they had thought about leaving the gang. What is the significance of that finding?

JMC: It is a high proportion, and it is very much related to developmental psychology literature. Once you arrive at a certain age and leave your teen years, your perspective on the world changes significantly. And that determines your views of the gang.

Most of the kids join the gangs when they are around 14, at a moment when they just want to be part of a group, find stability and an identity that can help answer certain questions about who they are, or their position in society. But once they go through that phase, those things have faded and they realize, “OK, the decisions I made three or four years ago are done decisions. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m here now, and I have to cope with it. But if I had the opportunity, I would certainly like to leave the gang and change my life because I now realize that I have no future.”

This is the case especially because some of them join the gang thinking they will be killed soon at some point. When they turn 18 or 19, they haven’t been killed, they’re still alive, and they have to face the question of “what am I going to do with my life now?” Maybe at that point they have children they want to take care of, which also changes their view of the gang. And that’s why most of them say they would like to leave the gang, especially as they grow older.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

IC: What are the different ways in which a gang member can leave or distance himself from a gang?

JMC: The predominant way to desist or leave the gang is by joining the church and becoming an evangelical Christian. That’s the one accepted and approved by most gangs. Then you have fleeing the country, or fleeing the neighborhood. In such a small country as El Salvador, given the gangs’ actual territorial control, it is very hard to move from one neighborhood to another. So the best solution sometimes is just getting out of the country.

Another way is a sort of negotiation with the gang to gain the status of “calmado,’ or “calmed down.” The member doesn’t completely leave the gang, he cannot disavow it, and he has to remain loyal to the brand. But he will not participate in activities, or be considered as part of the gang’s structure anymore.

IC: The report’s description of a “calmado” calls to mind that of an army reservist who can be called back if the gang is in a difficult situation.

JMC: It’s a similar status, but with a difference. When the calmado is called back, he’s not going to participate in a violent act, or an attack, or kill somebody. Usually, he will be called back to hide weapons (but not use them), or to pass information about somebody, move some money around or serve as a messenger.

IC: So they are called back for mostly logistical services?

JMC: Exactly. They are not called back, given a weapon and told to kill someone. The gangs tend to respect the status of calmado once it has been achieved, and do not ask them to engage in the most outrageous gang activities.

17-10-05-ESV-gang rehabilitation

(Graphic courtesy of FIU)

IC: Why is there so much respect from gangs toward churches? Are there direct communications between church officials and gang leaders? Or has it always been like this, an unspoken rule?

JMC: That’s a good question, and my honest answer is I don’t know. I still don’t understand why gangs are so respectful of churches, especially evangelical ones. They will tell you they have the same respect for the Catholic Church or other denominations. But really, the only ones they allow to rehabilitate their members without major consequences are the evangelical churches.

I explain why this is successful from the gang member’s individual point of view: Basically, the church completely substitutes the gang experience. It becomes this kind of comprehensive, near-totalizing experience. It covers everything in your life the same way the gang did when you were an active member. But from the gang’s perspective, I still don’t have a satisfying answer as to why it accepts evangelical churches.

IC: And this is true for all gangs?

JMC: Exactly, but what mechanisms push all these organizations to allow this process? Why does the gang leadership accept this process? Maybe — and I’m speculating here — because the leaders may be thinking that they’ll want to follow that same path at some point.

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IC: The greatest disincentive to leaving the gang is insecurity, with more than half of those surveyed reporting that they or their families were threatened. And even when successful, ex-members can face threats from rival gangs, harassment from government security forces, and discrimination from society. What measures, if any, are authorities adopting to support rehabilitating members?

JMC: I don’t think the Salvadoran government is making any significant effort at all. The government is basically allowing some civil society organizations to do some rehabilitation. But to a limited extent and with some difficulties. The penitentiary has some programs, to which they don’t really pay much attention. They’re more invested in harshening measures and punishments against gang members, in my opinion.

Government officials will tell you they’re working on rehabilitation, that they want gang members to go back to society. They will even show you some programs on paper. But in reality, I don’t see anything happening, and I don’t see the government really interested in conducting rehabilitation programs. The prevailing sense among law enforcement — which at the moment is most in charge of gang policies — is that gang members cannot be rehabilitated, so why waste resources in trying if these guys have no redemption?

IC: Like previous studies, your report finds youth join gangs in search for a sense of belonging and social bonds. But you also found a new dynamic, namely that an increasing number of people join looking for economic resources — in other words, as a type of career choice.

JMC: Yes, that’s new. Right now, for many youngsters, economic opportunities are nonexistent. Most of them are dropouts. Without any real economic opportunity, the gang becomes a career choice, as you say, because it is able to provide resources, not only for the member but sometimes for his family as well.

IC: Your report’s statistics seem to indicate a divide or a rift within the MS13. One the one hand, youth membership is driven by a search for a second family, while on the other end of the spectrum, the older gang leaders seek respect, power and benefits. The report even includes an illustrative quote about this dynamic. Can you elaborate?

JMC: I agree with that, and I remember that quote. The gang member said that the leader sees the kids as a source of revenue, and for that reason, he won’t allow them to leave the gang.

The MS13 is particularly interesting because with its level of structure and organization, you see this tension of more like a traditional criminal organization than a gang. They are still a gang and most of their members are youngsters. But the leaders have to deal with these kids and make sure they do what you want them to do, although most of them join the gang just to be part of something. That is very particular to the MS13, although you may see some of that in the Barrio 18 gang, especially the Sureños.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

IC: Could this internal division grow with time to really fracture the MS13?

JMC: In criminal organizations such as these, there is always the possibility that they may fracture due to conflicts over territorial control and, especially, over the control of criminal markets. But in light of the information that points to government intervention in trying to fracture the MS13, I believe it’s very unlikely.

There might be some desertions and attempts by some leaders to split off. But since it has become apparent that the government was behind some of the divisions, I believe it’s unlikely they will be successful because it has delegitimized the “mutineers.” And the government remains locked in this war against gangs. It’s likely that the gangs will not fracture, but rather coalesce around strong leaderships.

IC: Your report shows that overall, a large number of members want to leave the gang or calm down, but it is extremely hard to do so. What actions should the government, civil society, academics and experts thus take concerning gang member rehabilitation?

JMC: This is a tough question because there are no easy responses to the overall problem of gangs in El Salvador. The point is to create the conditions for those gang members who want to desist and rehabilitate so they can do it in a safe and sustainable way. That means first stopping the war and reducing the violence. Second, it’s important to create justice mechanisms to deal with the conundrum of past criminal behavior. In other words, we need to face the fact that many gang members have committed crimes and the society needs to come to terms with how to deal with them in a way that will not ignore the victims, as hard as this may be. And third, it’s important to provide life opportunities such as school, jobs and rehabilitation services for those who want to leave the gangs.

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