New research on gang membership in El Salvador
There is important new research about gang membership in El Salvador and the possibilities of gang members leaving the gang life behind. The US State Department funded study was performed by Florida International University along with FUNDE in El Salvador and produced a report titled The New Face of Street Gangs in Central America based on almost 1200 interviews with former and current gang members during 2016. Find the English version of the report here and the Spanish version here.
First the study had to look at why youth join the gangs in the first place. From the executive summary:
The results of the study suggest that Salvadoran youths keep joining the gangs as a result of problematic families, lack of opportunities, and a heightened perception of deprivation of social respect and affection in their communities. Gang organizations tap into such shortages to recruit and maintain an army that becomes instrumental in the control of new territories and the waging of war with enemies, including the police and security forces. However, from the standpoint of the gang members and former gang members, the main reasons why people continue joining the gang still revolve around the excitement from hanging out with peers and the development of social respect and public recognition. Young kids continue joining gang organizations because they provide assets that were not provided by their families and community, namely: friendship, protection, resources, and self-confidence. Thus, the gang becomes the center of the lives of the youngsters who joined at early ages. This view of the gangs remains unchallenged during the adolescent years, but starts to fade as the person matures, forms a family of his/her own, and faces the hardships brought by gang violence and law enforcement persecution.
When can gang members leave the gang? From the executive summary:
Gang desistance is possible and it seems more common than usually believed. However, the findings of this research also indicate that although the decision to leave the gang is seemingly an individual choice, it also depends on the gang organization’s acquiescence. In El Salvador, the progression toward gang desistance has to be constantly negotiated with the overwhelming power of the gang. This entails a delicate and lengthy process of negotiation with gang leaders. In most cases, desistance is a delicate process of separation: gang members expecting to leave the gang reduce their participation in gang meetings and gang activities, start 7 visiting the church, or devote more time to their families. All of these extra-gang activities are conducted with utmost attention to the sensibilities of the gang organization by sending clear signals of loyalty and disposition to cooperate.
According to the results of the survey, intentions to leave the gang are associated with the following circumstances. First, gang members harbor greater intentions to exit the gang if they experience their first incarceration at an older age. Second, plans to abandon the gang increase with time while inside the gang and as the person is exposed to the hardships of gang life at an adult age. In other words, intentions to abandon the gang do not appear just as a function of age, but as a result of the duration of active gang membership. However, the willingness to leave a gang becomes especially pressing if the gang member manages to find a job in the informal economy and is touched by a religious experience, usually in the Evangelical churches. Both occurrences—informal jobs and religious affiliation—seem to play the most significant role in convincing people to leave the gang.
Having the desire to leave a gang is not enough as former gang members face a litany of challenges and obstacles, the main one being the gang organizations themselves. The results of the survey show that an important percentage of former gang members said that they were threatened by their own peers when they decided to leave the gang. According to the data, more than 58% of former gang members have received threats against themselves or their families for abandoning the gang. Other challenges include the total absence of personal skills to work in a stable job, the lack of viable opportunities for training and employment, the constant threat from former gang rivals, the harassment of the police and security forces, and social discrimination for their past deeds and appearances (tattoos).
The religious experience plays a major role in the path toward gang desistance. It provides a protective space that allows aspiring deserters to reestablish links with the community, build their families, and seek educational and labor opportunities without the harassment of the gang organization. It is not surprising, then, that many of the successful cases of desistance that occur in El Salvador occur under the path of religious conversion and integration to an Evangelical church. However, gang members willing to leave the gang need to show an absolute commitment not only to their religious faith but also to the values associated with a pious life. Results show that this is not easy for many individuals. Gang organizations tend to police the moral life of their former gang members and, in many cases, exert an unrelenting control on the life of desisters, even when they no longer belong to the organization.