Julienne Gage is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. She spent time reporting in Kenya in 2012 for the International Reporting Project.
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THE MERE MENTION of maras—gangs that formed in the U.S. and then spread throughout Central America—conjures up overcrowded prisons filled with ominous-looking, elaborately tattooed Central American youth flashing gang signs. While this reality does exist, it’s part of what German scholar Sonja Wolf calls a folkloric attempt to demonize disenfranchised sectors of society rather than invest in comprehensive social programs.
Her new academic book, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, offers a far deeper analysis of public policy. It’s a must-read for any aid worker or missionary hoping to build peace and prosperity in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world—81 homicides per 100,000 people, eight times the U.N.’s marker for an epidemic. It also raises important questions about how much violence can actually be attributed to gangs when crime data is patchy and politicized.
The book, an updated version of Wolf’s 2008 doctoral dissertation in international politics, examines two decades of attempts to “pacify” El Salvador’s gangs, a subculture that diversified and expanded after El Salvador’s 1992 U.N.-sponsored peace accords. During the 12 years prior, a civil war claimed some 75,000 lives and prompted 1 million Salvadorans to seek refuge in the U.S. Some of these young refugees joined large U.S. gangs such as 18th Street or created their own, such as MS-13, then brought their gang affiliation back to El Salvador during mass deportations in the early 1990s.
Making Peace in a Powder Keg
IN DECEMBER 2007, Naomi Mwangi, a Christian, fled her home in Kisumu, Kenya, as men with machetes attacked towns across the region. For five weeks violence raged nationwide. When the bloodshed ended, more than 1,300 Kenyans were dead and another 650,000 had been displaced. Mwangi and her family ended up living in the Maai Mahiu refugee camp, south of Nairobi. She was 12 years old.
Mwangi is coming of age in a society with ethnic violence in the background, extremist violence in the foreground, and massive economic inequality. Africa has the highest concentration of young people in the world and more than half of them are unemployed. Mwangi wanted something different—she wanted to work for peace.
Now 21, Mwangi is a leader in grassroots peacemaking campaigns that seek to end conflicts between the 42 ethnic groups in this majority-Christian country. The 2007 election violence pitted Christian against Christian, as ethnic ties trumped religious affiliation. Even now, during elections, Mwangi told Sojourners, “Leaders motivate youth to join in the political crisis ... to fight against another tribe.”
A major obstacle to social and economic stability among youth in Kenya is unequal distribution of government-issued identification cards. Kenyans need ID cards for everything from voting and university enrollment to obtaining grants for entrepreneurship programs. But historically, the ruling government doled them out as political favors, and they’ve often been denied to members of minority groups.
“There are plenty of applications at election time,” Mwangi said, explaining that the ID process is slowed down or delayed when it seems one ethnic group could tip the chances of a politician who represents a different group.
Staying Connected in Later Years
With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older. Vanderbilt University Press.
Life After A Death
Pilgrimage through Loss: Pathways to Strength and Renewal after the Death of a Child, by Linda Lawrence Hunt. Westminster John Knox Press.
All in the Family
Churches in the "127 Movement" are opening their hearts, homes, and families to welcome children in the foster care system.
Gen Xers and the New Cuba
A new generation of Cuban Americans encourages broader dialogue.
A Tropical Quest
Restless Fires: Young John Muir's Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in 1867-68. Mercer University Press.
Seeking the Peace of the City
Faith communities work to stem the flow of guns to criminals.
A Higher Calling For Higher Ed
Trinity University found the future of education -- hiding in its own neighborhood.
Spokane Indian Sherman Alexie often snaps "that's personal" during interviews, yet the characters in his books and films closely follow his own life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation...
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