The Common Good
April 2009

Interview with Robert Brenneman

by Jeannie Choi | April 2009

Robert Brenneman is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Notre Dame studying Central American gangs.

Robert Brenneman is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Notre Dame studying Central American gangs. Christians are countering gang violence in Central America armed only with faith and teh belief that no one--not even the worst criminal--is beyond hope. Here, assistant editor Jeannie Choi interviews Brenneman about his research on Central American gang activity.

Where did your interest in Central America begin?

I guess my interest in Central America began in high school when I watched the movie Romero, so this is going way back. Romero’s story of passion, courage, and nonviolence was interesting and compelling to me. During college I participated in a cross-cultural study term to Central America and after that I went back to work as a volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee, and I eventually ended up getting married and staying for 6 years.

And when did you first come in contact with the gangs that you write about?

I wouldn’t say I ever had direct interaction with the gangs but I lived in neighborhoods where the gangs were close by in Guatemala by 2003. When it came time to choose a dissertation topic I ran across an article that suggested that the most common pathway out of the gang in Central America was by way of the evangelical churches and a conversion experience, and I sort of wanted to know if that was actually the case or if that was more a kind of an interesting storyline that got picked up that wasn’t actually common. The organization the Honduran Mennonite Peace Commission was my contact where I got my first interviews with ex-gang members so I started in Honduras in a neighborhood in northern San Pedro

What have you learned about Central American gang life through your research?

I began interviewing outside of this group, and they introduced me to other groups of ex-gang members in other parts of Honduras and those ex-gang members were clear that to leave the gang is to risk your life, and leaving the gang is to live without any protection from your enemies and from those who feel you’ve betrayed them in your own gang, so they have this saying, “Hasta la morgue,” or “all the way to the morgue,” and they’re much more explicit about this in Central America than say in Los Angeles. This is a life-long commitment.

Why do they require this life-long commitment?

Partly in response to the crackdown on gangs in Honduras and El Salvador when the government basically released a war on the gangs, and the gangs responded in part by making it very difficult to leave the gang, and so part of what I was interested in finding out was, is it true that a common pathway out of the gang is by way of evangelical conversion? And so I asked everyone that I interviewed that question, and to my surprise it seems to hold true. There is what I call an evangelical exit clause to this hard and fast rule that if you leave the gang, you’re in danger of being killed by your old colleagues.

That’s the general rule but there is this exit clause, this evangelical exit clause, and one reason it is the case, one of the most common things that I found was that the guys had this saying, con dios no es juega, or we don’t mess with God. So, there is a kind of latent religiosity even among the current gang members themselves. Some would call it superstition, but they don’t take God lightly, and they’re very afraid of getting on God’s bad side. At the same time, it’s not as simple as just going to a church service. The only way to leave the gang safely is by way of the church, but you must show us that you’re serious precisely for the same reason that you don’t mess with God, so then it comes back to we don’t mess with God and you’d better not either. We are doing God a favor by bumping you off. I’m very much paraphrasing, but this is the message that I took from a number of interviews.

Why is there such a big gang presence in Central America?

There are predisposing factors. I’m not of the opinion that most gang youth were somehow forced into the gang by socioeconomic forces. That’s an over-socialized perspective of the human being. They make choices. But I found very few youth who had grown up in middle class families, and very few light-skinned youth among the gang members, although there were some. These youth have a number of strikes against them, almost with very few exceptions. Poverty is one of the strikes against them. To grow up poor in a context of poverty is a predisposing factor, but poverty itself is not by itself a very whole explanation for why guys join the gangs, because we would see more of the gangs in Nicaragua. So poverty by itself doesn’t explain the whole situation.

Another very important factor is family disintegration or precarious family structures and what I mean by that is basically many of the young gang members, of the youth who join gangs, come from families in which there is either abandonment or abuse or just ongoing conflict and so many of the gang youth came from families in which one or both parents were not present. Many were raised by grandparents or an aunt with other grandchildren and cousins. Add this element to poverty and you start to see the common problems that together create a very precarious immediate environment that makes you desperate for some kind of visibility. These youth feel invisible and they look around and see the gang members as one guy said, wearing his baggy pants with his money in his pocket getting attention of all the girls, and they say, “I want to be that.”

A young gang member, Jose, told me almost weeping that he didn’t know why his mother had left them, and thought maybe it was because he was uglier than the other siblings that she had raised. He had been left with his grandmother and his father was not allowed to see him until he was eight, and six months after he met his father, his father was killed in a gang war of an earlier era, and that made him very angry and eager to find a way to make somebody pay for what had been done to his father. So anger and vengeance is another element to this mix that is sort of stirred up by being poor and having no immediate family members to rely on.

In Central America where there are no social safety nets, the family and, to a lesser degree the church, have been the only safety nets available, and my research has led me to the conclusion that an increase in migration patterns, and what’s called the feminization of migration, has taken not just fathers but also mothers out of tens of thousands of Central American homes, and created much more precarious situations for Central American children and youth.

We heard a lot about street children in Central America in the late eighties-early nineties. Well, when the gangs arose in the mid-nineties, it was a kind of a organizational structure for these street children and street youth to help organize themselves in a negative way, but to also give them power to feel less abandoned and less marginalized. At the same time you had an increase in the availability in small arms and a kind of small arms race that took place that basically armed the gangs.

How can Christians in the United States help?

This issue is really complex. I would say first off, we have got to find a better way to deal with the flow of illegal drugs than the war on drugs which has been going on for a long time now. It seems to not be working, and instead it really contributes to a kind of all-out war which used to be centered in Columbia and Miami, and is now more centered in Mexico. Much of the violence that’s currently in Central American with gang youth involved is drug related. A lot of the gang members are basically in the employ of the drug cartel. So, I would tell people, don’t support the war on durgs. It’s a dead end.

Instead, we need to work on diminishing demand rather than trying to stop supply. We should be promoting holistic approaches to reducing gang violence. And actually, I’m not usually a strong advocate of USAID, but they have actually done some good work in researching the causes of the emergence of gangs throughout Central America, and is just starting to do some very interesting programming in helping youth escape the gangs.

Also, we need to promote human development in Central America, not just economic development because the neo-liberal model is really bankrupt. It’s time for the U.S. to promote human development and careful, thoughtful, social spending. Also, support the effort to stop selling small arms to Central America. El Salvador is the 7th export market in the world for U.S. small firearms and this is a tiny country of six million people. There is no justification for that. Those weapons are just going to be used on the people themselves. There’s absolutely no reason for us to be trying to make money on the small arms weapons market in Central America.

To get involved in ending Central American gang violence, consider partnering with The Interchurch Organization for Cooperation and Development (www.icco.nl/delivery/icco/en). You can also help the Mennonite Central Committee support the anti-violence ministry of the Honduran Mennonite Peace Project by sending a tax-deductible donation to www.mcc.org/donate.

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