A gang truce mediated by the Catholic Church in El Salvador has dramatically reduced gang-related killings in the Central American country since it was implemented in March. Those who work with gang members in the United States support the fragile agreement and hope to reduce the lure of gangs in both countries.
El Salvador and neighboring Honduras, which are plagued with gangs, have homicide rates 10 times the global average.
The gang truce in El Salvador has reduced the murder rate, and brought concessions from authorities for better treatment of gang leaders in prison. Police suppression and deportations in the 1990s also brought down the murder rate as many immigrant gang members were returned to their home countries.
Executive director of the group Homies Unidos, Alex Sanchez, works to get young people out of gangs. The one-time gang member was deported in 1994 and saw the gangs take hold in his native El Salvador.
“The common people were really afraid of us. But then you had kids that were troubled attracted to us. So all these kids that were troubled in El Salvador were attracted by this gang thing,” Sanchez said.
In El Salvador, the Los Angeles-based gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street gang provided refuge for rootless and homeless youngsters, and as their numbers grew, they became more violent.
Gang ties are hard to break, says a 46-year-old father of two, Freddie Taren, who is removing his gang tattoos and coping with drug addiction from his days with the Mexican-American Lomas gang of San Gabriel, California.
“I have been shot when I was 14 years old in the chest. I have been shot, stabbed, I have been through it all. And I am very fortunate to still be alive, to still be here today,” Taren said.
Los Angeles, California, still has tens of thousands of gang members and hundreds of gang killings each year. El Salvador had up to 14 killings a day until a recent 60 percent reduction. An activist and former California legislator, Tom Hayden, has studied the problem and says now is the time to take action.
“It is an opportunity for the authorities to come up with solutions to the problem, instead of thinking they can suppress it, crush it, imprison it, kill it. All of those things have cost millions of dollars and thousands of lives,” Hayden said.
One solution is providing jobs and training in the inner city. At Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles charity founded by Catholic priest Greg Boyle, former gang members produce T-shirts and others serve food in the Homegirl Cafe.
University of California, Los Angeles Social Welfare Professor Jorja Leap says the program addresses a key problem.
“A lack of hope, a lack of a sense of possibilities, the idea that there is no alternative to gang life. And that is very potent, along with all these other forces that are at play,” Leap said.
Authorities in both countries remain suspicious of current and former gang members who say they can be part of the solution. Gang intervention worker Sanchez faces charges of racketeering and conspiracy stemming from a 2006 gang killing. He says he is innocent and that his work with gang members brought him under suspicion.
Those who work with gangs point to the treaty that brought peace to El Salvador in 1992 after years of civil war, and say that gang members who are tired of the violence have a role to play in bringing peace to El Salvador and Los Angeles.