Drawing on his personal evolution from troubled youth to mature champion of conflict resolution and social activism, Magdaleno Rose-Avila is launching a daring initiative to combat the growing phenomenon of gang violence that is ravaging post-war El Salvador.
The New Idea
Magdaleno Rose-Avila realizes that the fundamental flaws in existing attempts to address the explosive problem of gang violence grow out of their failure to involve gang members themselves in the design of outreach efforts and a lack of understanding about the lives of these young people and their reasons for becoming involved with gangs in the first place. At great risk to himself, he set about the task of meeting gang members, winning their trust, and learning about their experiences, fears and aspirations. These efforts enabled him to create Homeboys United, the first organization in the region set up by gang members themselves to explore their own ideas for leading better lives, rather than simply receiving services offered by other institutions. There are several truly unique dimensions to the approach of Homeboys United. Firstly, no other organization has encouraged gang members to design their own structures or propose their own solutions to the root causes of their problems. Secondly, nobody else has been able to create an environment in which members of rival gangs can work together. Thirdly, Magdaleno is the only agent creative enough to work within the existing structures of the gangs, recognizing that their bond of acceptance is a powerful lure to disillusioned and alienated young people, and that he can build on their sense of belonging while working against the violence and anti-social behavior for which the gangs are reviled. Finally, he has forged links with police and immigration officials both in El Salvador and the United States to educate them about positive contributions they can make to the resolution of the gang problem. By facilitating the development of an organization that offers help and understanding to youths who want to escape the violence of their current predicament, Magdaleno has established a structure and method for the self-rehabilitation of gang members that can now be replicated across El Salvador, and eventually throughout Central America and Mexico.
In 1997 El Salvador replaced Colombia as the most violent society in Latin America, according to World Bank figures on the number of homicides per 10,000 inhabitants. To a large degree this horrifying statistic is a legacy of twelve years of civil war, which left deep psychological scars on both the perpetrators and the victims of atrocities, and contributed to an overabundance of readily available firearms. Despite positive macroeconomic indicators in the years since the 1992 peace accords were signed, including an average five percent annual increase in Gross Domestic Product, the bulk of the population has yet to reap the benefits of post-war "stability," and crime is fueled by the desperation of young former combatants who see violence as their only "skill" and theft as their only source of income. The country is kept afloat by dollar remittances from over a million and a half Salvadorans who fled to the United States during the war. However, many of those emigrants settled in inner-city neighborhoods, where their children grew up amidst all the social ills that plague economically depressed areas-including gangs. Salvadoran youths who left their homeland at an early age, became involved with gangs, and were detained by U.S. police and immigration authorities as a result of criminal behavior, are now being deported en masse back to a homeland they barely recognize. As they step off the plane in San Salvador, with little money and often a very weak command of Spanish, the only structures waiting to receive them are extensions of the gangs they were involved with in the U.S. Given the lack of any other option, these young people very quickly move into criminal activity, ranging from theft and muggings to murder, either of rival gang members or of victims who resist their attacks.
According to a recent survey of over 1,000 gang members, designed by Magadaleno and conducted by Homeboys United in coordination with several international funders and a local institute renowned for measuring public opinion, some 46 percent of gang members joined up out of a need to belong to a group that would understand and relate to their experience. Many also sought relief from family problems, or felt they had little prospect of finding a conventional job. Fewer than five percent identified the desire for violence and revenge as a reason for getting involved, yet once they have become members, they are rapidly drawn into fights arising from friction with rival gangs, not to mention crime and drug use.
The panorama for Salvadoran youth is thus particularly bleak, whether they were traumatized by war and social polarization in their own country, or have been deported back after growing up in the gang culture of American cities. In the absence of legitimate economic opportunity, social structures to mediate their family disputes, or understanding from a society that gang members perceive as focusing more on the problems than the potential of young people, participation in gangs offers an easy, if dangerous, alternative. At this point there are an estimated 20,000 youths involved in gangs in all major cities and towns in the country. Given the magnitude and severity of the street gang problem in El Salvador, several state institutions and citizen organizations have tried to tackle it, thus far with very limited success. Neither police crackdowns nor vocational training programs have been able to scare or entice young Salvadorans away from the allure of the gangs. And as long as the root causes of gang involvement are not addressed, then the indices of violence in El Salvador will continue to spiral upwards.
The above-mentioned survey, the first of its kind in El Salvador, confirmed what Magdaleno had originally suspected-that a staggering 85 percent of respondents wanted to abandon their active membership in gangs, but simply did not see any alternative lifestyle available to them. In addition, Magdaleno quickly realized that any efforts he might make to provide such alternatives would be useless if they did not originate from the gang members themselves, or did not cut across rival gang lines. As a result he set about the painstaking process of walking the streets, meeting gang leaders, listening to their stories, then sharing his own experience of moving from an angry and violent adolescence to a more mature approach to problem solving. In this way, over the course of a year, he has established a core group of 40 gang members who have renounced the use of violence and are committed to helping others to do the same.
Magdaleno was careful to identify gang leaders as he selected those with whom he would work most closely. As a result of their contacts, he estimates that he has already established links with over 2,000 gang members in San Salvador, especially those linked with the two largest organizations, la Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 (18th Street). Based on these encounters, he has already been called on to mediate various disputes, to visit gang members in jail or hospital, and to extend his fledgling organization to other major cities. However, Magdaleno is convinced of the need to move deliberately and cautiously. The 40 core members of Homeboys United have set up a small office, from which they conduct planning sessions, public relations and press interviews, and where they have begun some efforts to generate employment and income-by studying computer graphics and designing and producing custom buttons for sale to individuals and companies. These efforts have already been recognized by the local press, and there are several corporate philanthropists with whom Magdaleno is negotiating broader support.
His strategy for replicating the initial success of Homeboys United is predicated first on completing the training of the founding members in principles of non-violence, conflict resolution, peer counseling and personal motivation. They will soon be ready to respond to the numerous requests for help that Magdaleno has received from schools, police departments and municipal administrations that are confronting the consequences of gang violence. At that point, he will divide them into training teams who will travel throughout the country to do workshops and seminars-not only with youth at risk, but also with citizen organizations, businesses and police departments. Magdaleno does not see this group as a flying squad, able to parachute in and solve other people's problems. Instead he conceives of it as a response to the 85 percent of gang members who seek a change and a second chance. His trainers will focus on membership development and an introduction to the principles of non-violence. They will help gang members to establish local chapters of Homeboys United, so that they can discern their own responses to the challenge of breaking away from violent lifestyles, and design projects for attaining more socially constructive alternatives. Magdaleno is already developing contacts in the business world so as to generate employment opportunities, and seeks to build on his initial experience with computers and the button-making machine to explore other viable sources of income for gang members.
Much of the creativity in Magdaleno's innovative response to the scourge of gang violence derives from his ability to draw on a long experience of social activism at various levels so as to mobilize and coordinate all the actors who can help improve the prospects of gang members. He has established contacts with the media so as to publicize his approach, while at the same time working carefully with the young people who deal with reporters. As a response to the ongoing tension and violence between gangs and the police, Magdaleno has convened meetings aimed at fostering mutual respect, and has proposed a system whereby members of Homeboys United would carry an identification card which they could show the police in the event of a confrontation. He has met with police and FBI officials in Los Angeles to educate them about the Salvadoran dimension to their problem, and has received enthusiastic offers of cooperation. Magdaleno is currently working with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service so as to receive advance warning of the deportation of Salvadoran youths, so that Homeboys United can meet them at the airport and offer them orientation and support for their reintegration. Finally, he is working with organizations in Mexico and Los Angeles that address gang issues, and has already planned a serious of international exchanges to promote dialogue and discussion on strategies for reducing gang violence and creating viable alternatives for disaffected youth.
The son of Mexican farm workers who immigrated to the United States, Magdaleno worked the fields himself as a boy and was deeply affected by poverty and racism at an early age. His response to the inequity and prejudice he perceived was to retreat into anti-social behavior, violence, and drug use. This experience is an element he introduces into conversation with young gang members now so that they will understand that he can relate to their activities and feelings. Magdaleno was profoundly influenced by the death of his younger sister, who was taken from her family as a teenager by the state, institutionalized, and went on to become a drug addict. He became determined to prevent this fate from befalling other troubled youths. He had also undergone a profound conversion through his involvement in the United Farm Workers movement, which drew him into friendship and dialogue with César Chávez, and the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, particularly the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King. Through many years of organizing rural workers and contemplating the options for promoting social change, Magdaleno became convinced of the need for non-violent strategies, and that conviction informed all his subsequent choices.
He went on to work as a country director for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Guatemala, with Amnesty International as director of a campaign to abolish the death penalty, and as the first director of the César Chávez Foundation. Over the past several years he has worked closely with organizations involved in the gang problem in Los Angeles, which introduced him to the complex relationship between immigration policy, the options available to inner-city youth, and the links between gang members and their countries of origin. Since moving to El Salvador, Magdaleno has brought the richness of his life experience to bear on the problems of gang members there. He has demonstrated his flexibility and pragmatic ability to mobilize available resources, while at the same time using his creative talent to envision an entirely new approach to one of the country's most vexing social problems.