Is it possible to love peace and nonviolence but support an organization that is comprised of active gang members?
EVERYONE'S AFRAID of a gang member, right? And no wonder, since the most common media portrayal of these young people is of randomly violent, heartless people roaming the streets, sucking the life out of our children and our communities.
Today, violence seems to be on the rise in almost all North American cities and we seem to be at a loss for ways to alter the situation. The current police approach of rounding people up and incarcerating them, even for small violations that would normally result in a slap on the wrist, doesn't seem to be working. In the U.S., research shows that mass incarceration has only increased the incidence of prison gangs.
We rarely hear the other side of the story. The gang members' story. How do they see it? What are their issues?
In San Salvador, El Salvador and Los Angeles, California a small group of gang members have organized, calling themselves Homies Unidos. Comprised of members of different - and rival - gangs, Homies Unidos is doing something that nobody has ever done in El Salvador and is rarely done in the United States.
They are working together, trying to construct a future for themselves and their homeboys and homegirls. But it's not easy.
Between 1980 and 1992, with the civil war raging in El Salvador, thousands of families migrated to the United States. Most of them settled in the greater Los Angeles area where many young immigrants faced a tough existence in their new neighborhoods.
In a position of having to protect themselves on the streets, many of them turned to gangs for security. They joined either La Calle 18 (18th Street) or the newly formed La Mara Salva Trucha; two rival gangs whose animosity has increased exponentially over the years. Life on the streets provided these newcomers with a steady diet of violence and racism.
After the war ended, U.S. officials aggressively deported any undocumented Salvadorans. With most of the deportees being gang members, the young "pandilleros" took the gang structures and rivalry - that had spilled the blood of thousands in the U.S. - back to El Salvador and the war of the streets was extended to Central America.
Hector Pineda experienced this first-hand. A member of La Mara Salva Trucha gang in Los Angeles, Pineda - aka "El Negro" - 22, now lives in San Salvador where he founded Homies Unidos.
"There were a lot of programs to help gang members ... everybody wanted to talk for the gangs," says Pineda "but we were tired of people talking for us, we wanted to talk for ourselves."
In 1996, with the help of Save the Children and other organizations, Homies' founders helped develop the first public opinion poll and study of the needs of gang members. They developed a questionnaire and polled more than 1,000 gang members to find out - from the gangs themselves - why people join gangs and what they want out of their lives.
Through their participation in the study and meeting under the tutelage of Magdaleno Rose-Avila, community organizer and international human rights activist, gangsters began to see their need to work together and seek a brighter future for themselves, both in El Salvador and for their brothers and sisters in Los Angeles.
"The amazing thing we found is that a vast majority of gang members want to lead a more peaceful life, they want to get rid of the violence, they want jobs, they want an education, they want a future for themselves and their children," says Rose-Avila.
And that is what Homies Unidos is all about. Building a future.
Operating primarily out of donated office space in San Salvador, Homies works with gang members and "at risk" youth to help them gain occupational and life skills. Participants get computer training, art classes, English language training and even run a small business. Recently, they established a small button-making enterprise where they design, produce and sell buttons with the Homies Unidos logo and other messages like "alto a la violencia" ("stop the violence") All of the profits go back to the program to buy more materials.
"Nobody thought we could do something even as basic as the button's design, and we designed them, we're selling them, and we're going to do a study of what T-shirts and boxer shorts sell the best and for what price in El Salvador, and pretty soon we'll be selling our own T-shirts and boxer shorts." says Pineda.
Although they promote non-violence, Pineda makes a point to stress that they are not peacemakers, since interfering with gang business can be very dangerous. "We are trying to make it a better world for our brothers and sisters who are in the gangs. The intention is to use the gangs to do something positive. But you can stay in a gang and be calm, we say calmado. So what we try to do is be calmados because you can't pretend you're not from anywhere ... you can't hide your tattoos."
"We're not saying stay in the gangs your whole life," adds Rose-Avila, "but in this situation the gangs provide a way to reach the youths, to reach out to the members."
"We take the best from the gangs and try to build from there. Because in gangs sometimes they are the only family you have. Society has ostracized you, you don't belong to anyone, so your Homies are all you've got. And you can't change people, you can't tell them that they are something they're not, you have to accept them."
While most of us have a hard time getting past our fears and the surface image of gangs, Homies strives to recognize and utilize the positive aspects of gang life - camaraderie, unity, leadership and organizing skills. "Our focus is to create a non-violent approach to resolving the tensions that exist between rival gangs," says Pineda, "and by carefully persuading people to settle their conflicts non-violently, we expect to significantly decrease violence in El Salvador."
Changing public perceptions is another challenge. Public attitudes toward youth are becoming more and more negative and employers are increasingly cautious when they consider hiring young people. Current government programs focus mostly on people 40 and older, thinking that they are the future of the country.
Homies Unidos sees it differently. Rose-Avila looks to the youth to see the future. "You've got to deal with the youth," he says. "That's where you affect change. Here we've got these people who have had all their dreams taken away, and what Homies Unidos does is help to restore their dreams, some self esteem, and then people can say: "Now, something else is possible."
Beverley Keefe is a Vancouver-based writer.