A Discussion with Robert Brenneman, Associate Professor of Sociology, Saint Michael’s College

With: Robert Brenneman Berkley Center Profile

September 29, 2015

Background: Sociologist Robert Brenneman has spent several years analyzing and conducting fieldwork and interviews among some of the most notorious gangs in Guatemala. He argues that, in spite of the negative reputation gang members have in Guatemalan society, what a gang member wants most of all is respect and access to dignity. In Guatemala, where there are few pathways for dignity for marginalized youth, gang membership is considered a lifetime commitment for these young men, with virtually no possible exit. Evangelical churches, however, have become one of the few avenues to exit a gang; conversion is a realistic pathway to respect in a place where education is very difficult to complete and not necessarily a guarantee of a dignified life. Brenneman argues that what the former gang member finds in the Pentecostal community is a church that celebrates deep transformations and provides support and encouragement through the transition to life outside a gang. He also raises flags about the potentially negative impact of mano dura (tough law-based) approaches to gang violence. The context for this conversation on September 29, 2015 with Carlos Martínez Ruiz was the initial consultation for the Guatemala mapping project at the Berkley Center/WFDD in Washington, D.C.

Can you tell us about your background and how you became so interested in Guatemala?

I grew up in the rural Midwest in a very religious Mennonite pastor’s home and my first contact with Latin America was when, at the urging of my older brother, I watched the film Romero. It captivated me! The story of fearless, prophetic non-violent action, and the martyr story, were consistent with my background as a Mennonite, a church with a peace tradition and its own memory of martyrdom. That story captivated me, and I knew I had to go to Central America. Further, at that time, in the early ’90s, wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were ending.

I decided to do a semester abroad in Central America. I was based in Guatemala but traveled throughout Central America, visiting such places as where Romero was shot and where the Jesuits were killed at the UCA University in El Salvador. I also learned about the struggle for justice and dignity in Central America. And, quite honestly, I loved how interactions in Central America were much more personal.

After college I returned to volunteer by signing up for a three-year commitment with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). I ended up staying for six years, and I got married to a Guatemalan woman. I worked in Guatemala City, as a Connecting Peoples Coordinator. That role was a new approach for MCC to connect both (U.S. and Guatemalan) people in a way that was dignifying for all involved, through learning tours, delegations, and work-and-learn teams. My job was to do the educational component of the programs, and I also traveled outside the city to do things like build schools or provide disaster relief after hurricane Katrina; I was also coordinating college study abroad tours, so I became a real believer in the power of cross-cultural encounter, when done right—but it can also regenerate stereotypes when not done well. I had never taken a sociology class as an undergraduate but I read Peter Berger’s book The Sacred Canopy, and I was interested in religion and society in Central America. After six years I came back to Indiana, to get a Ph.D. in sociology. My inspiration to study religion and violence came from an article by Manuel Vasquez and Ileana Gomez, where they write about gang members joining Pentecostal churches. That and other articles inspired me to write my dissertation on gang exit, that is, on the pathways available for gang members to leave their gangs in Central America.

Had you noticed the rise of gangs in your initial visits to Guatemala?

Absolutely. It was what everyone was talking about in the late ‘90s. Guatemalan gangs were no longer pandillas; they had already been colonized by the transnational maras, the Mara Salvatrucha, and 18 St. Gang. When I came back to write my dissertation, I began to study the gang phenomenon in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, but I noticed that most of the literature referred to how people joined the gang and about gang life. Hardly anyone was writing on why some youth leave the gang or what that process was like. The mantra that was propagated by both the gang leaders and the lay gang observers was that once you’re in, you cannot get out. I knew this wasn’t true because I had a friend who was helping gang members leave the gang in Honduras; you can leave the gang. I was running across stories of people who had left, so I wondered why no one had studied gang exit?

Even in U.S. literature, hardly anyone has studied that process of leaving, and I thought this would be a good way to study this, and an interesting way to look at what Pentecostalism looks like today. I started interviewing ex-gang members in Honduras, Guatemala City, and some interviews in El Salvador as well. This was under the assumption that the gangs were similar enough that one could talk about transnational gangs as a North and Central America phenomenon, without treating each country as absolutely different. Today that may be no longer possible.

What are the distinctive elements of gangs across the three countries?

My impression from local reports and incarceration and homicide rates, is that Salvadoran gang structures have hardened, expanded, and are more organized. I think that is at least in part as a response to the broad-brushed, unsophisticated Mano Dura approaches of the government. For instance, I think police and a working judicial system are important, but approaches focused heavily on police roundups have backfired heavily. El Salvador is a poster child for how to make a situation worse with regard to gangs. In Guatemala and Honduras it is different, not because they have better policies, but because their repressive approaches are less thorough and far-reaching. In other words, they did less to make the situation worse.

And there is organized crime of other types in those countries.

Yes, and I think that in Guatemala and Honduras other social actors have taken the techniques of the gangs and made them their own. In countries with very weak judicial structures that are not very good at collecting evidence, when youth suspected of being a gang member are killed, those crimes are not investigated. You don’t really know who’s killing them or the causes. In many cases it’s probably social cleansing.

In Guatemala the extortion model has been largely, in some areas, taken over by families that have no connections to the gangs. In some cases they will employ a former gang leader to be their collector; but that model of collecting money was too valuable to leave in the hands of the gangs­—in the hands of young, marginal men—and the Guatemalan gang structure is not strong enough to protect its own lucrative model of extortion indefinitely. In other cases the gang may be conducting the extortion locally, but they have to pay off so many different non-gang members, like business owners, family members, and police officers, in order to keep the racket going. It’s really a communal affair, where obviously not everyone, but a lot of members are making money and the various actors are not interested in ending the extortion model. We don’t really have a good judicial or investigative structure that can trace the money all the way to its final destiny, although it would be great to see the Ministerio Publico in Guatemala taking its new knowledge of high-level corruption into this mid-level corruption.

What are the supposed exit options for gang members to leave the gang? And how is it that the church has, in practice, represented the only real exit?

In the ‘90s it was more common for aging gang members, guys in their mid-20s, to become pandilleros calmados or jubilados (retired or calmed-down gang members), when they became interested in starting a family and wanted a more stable lifestyle. At that point it was still possible to find formal employment; because gangs were not quite identified as dangerous pariahs, it was possible to convince people that you were cleaning up your act and starting over.

To allow someone to leave, the gang would look at your file and see if you had done enough service for the gang. Often times they would charge you a fee for leaving or you would help the gang with one final heist and you’d be done. Gang members stopped seeking the retirement option because it was getting harder to find formal jobs and no one would trust them. It was known that gang members were hasta la muerte or hasta la morgue (until death or until the morgue), so people and police would not trust the retirados. Police would also extort ex-gang members because they could arrest them for a crime at any time and send them back to prison.

So the avenues for exit begin to narrow?

Yes, and the governments began cracking down with policies tough on crime. They were intending to put pressure on gang members to leave the gangs, which in turn pushed the gang leaders to crack down and introduce social control policies aimed at stopping a mass exodus from the gangs, cracking down on desertions. So the calmado loophole closes. This didn’t happen at exactly the same way in all gang cells, but gangs adapt to local circumstances.

Another exit option, fleeing to the U.S., is also closing. Since gangs also control the migrant land routes to the U.S., they check your tattoos that identify you as a gang member and then find out if you have permission to leave. If you are of the opposing gang then you are at huge risk. Fleeing to the U.S. becomes less of an option. There was a lot of inter-Central American migration among gang members in the early 2000s as they went to live with relatives. But that was also hard because it’s hard enough to get work in your own community, and worse where no one knows you. That becomes dangerous as well.

The third option is, of course, what I call the “evangelical exemption.” Some gang leaders in the late ‘90s and early 2000s provided a safe passage for gang members who really were serious about leaving and starting anew.

How did that happen, considering that gangs are not top-down hierarchies? And why religion, as opposed to going back to take care of your mom, for example?

I can’t say that in every single cell the evangelical exemption was practiced, but I found evidence of it in all three countries. A couple of factors made it possible or attractive for gang leaders to allow this exemption. One is that even gang leaders are not a-religious. They might not be practicing, but most Central Americans are raised with a religious background. As one gang leader explained to me, when he went to request permission from the gang leader to leave, the leader told him con el colocho no se juega (don’t mess with curly), that’s fine, you can leave and join the church, but don’t mess with curly. It was explained to me that curly is lingo for Jesus. Another recurring phrase is no se juega con Dios ni con la mara (you don’t mess with God or with the gang). The gang takes religion seriously; they may not practice it, but they are not skeptics.

So the church becomes one of the last institutions they can respect?

Yes, they will respect some symbols, and priests, and evangelical pastors can have some more freedom to move around in the neighborhoods. But there’s also the practical factor. The gang leaders know that the evangelical exemption is not going to lead to a mass exodus, because they know that, at least for the evangelicals, converting means changing your life. Primary among the personal changes you must display upon becoming an evangelical is to give up alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Basically, you have to give up La Vida Loca. Alcohol is especially important as a means for constructing your masculinity in the barrio, and when you give that up, that’s a serious commitment. You are giving up a lot, and the gang leaders know this. They know they are not going to see a massive exodus, because it requires giving up pathways of constructing your identity as a true macho. Also, you can’t go to discotecas. You cannot womanize. It’s not that evangelicals ask for celibacy immediately when you convert, but they expect you to formalize your sexual relationship if you have one. It has to be one, so you must choose a monogamous partner and start moving towards getting married. That’s another price of becoming an evangelical. Another price is that you have to give up your evenings, meeting four to five times a week at night and especially on weekends. This helps gang members make a break with their past, because on Friday and Saturday, between 7 and 10 p.m. they’re not going to be available to the former crew, which is still attractive to them; Pentecostals require a clean break.

These are reasons why the pathway works, why it’s allowed by the gang. Gangs allow it because they can be relatively certain that converted former members will not join the opposite gang or continue extorting or selling drugs without passing money up, which was the problem with the pandilleros calmados.

So the new convertidos are not enemies and they are not competition?

Exactly, and the neighborhoods are like fishbowls with everybody watching you. As they say, la mara te mira, te vigila (the gang watches you) to make sure the conversion is not a ruse. They will remind you, “don’t mess with curly or the gang.” If you are going to do it, do it for good, de una vez.

The gang leaders also know that church pastors work, in a way, like probation officers. They keep checking up on ex-gang members because they want to make sure these guys make it. They know they need a lot of attention, and they need something to suck up their time. The evening worship services are really good for this, and they help them find a job, something to do.

Is the evangelical exemption equally offered to women in gangs?

Women often are not under the same obligations. And an additional pathway that used to apply to man, but continues to apply for women, is pregnancy and family—the family exemption.

Do you think church leaders are proactive or explicitly working with individuals for evangelical exemption? Do they communicate with the gang leadership when a member wants to leave?

They don’t usually communicate with gang leaders. The evangelical gang ministries that exist do not coordinate between themselves and certainly not with the gangs, and not all churches have gang ministries. But given the few exit options, the ministries that exist are very important for gang members that want to leave. During my research I encountered around 30 ministries, from small size NGO-type groups all the way down to independent pastors interested in helping gang members. It depends on the passion or charisma of the pastor. Often these are young pastors that identify with the young gang members or grew up with them. Catholic churches have programs that are more formalized, have more resources, and aim at providing practical tools for learning a trade. But Catholics tend to stay away from personal religious decisions of former gang members, maybe assuming everyone’s Catholic and probably as a way to respect personal beliefs.

So this is not a general “religious” exemption but specifically an “evangelical” exemption?

If the Catholic Church did gang ministry it was always vocational and usually as prevention. In multiple cases young men involved in Catholic programs were actually evangelical. It’s true that one needs vocational skills, but one also needs some way to rebuild trust with the community, family members, and employers. They also need help with those embodied practices to help them stand out less.

The walking, speaking—what sociologists call the techniques of the body?

Exactly, what Pierre Bourdieu, the French social theorist, termed habitus—a particular way of walking, talking, expressing himself, and clothing himself. If he is to be a trusted member of society again, he has to start from the ground and relearn all of that, and that’s hard.

To learn a new habitus.

Bourdieu said that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to learn a new habitus as an adult. I saw some evidence of some men pulling it off; when they did, it was often because of their deeply emotional, regular participation in a Pentecostal church that asked them to dress differently, to change what they imbibed, to change how they spoke, and to change how they greeted people.

I imagine this goes along well with the “born again” process?

Exactly, you become a new person! And evangelicals have to believe in that; it’s part of their religious DNA, believing that God can change anyone. They don’t have the option of saying that people cannot change, and their theology doesn’t allow it. Even more, they are excited when they find candidates for change, because an ex-gang member who has turned his life around is evidence that God is active and real and involved in their church, in their community.

They become testimony of the success of the church itself?

Exactly, and they are profiled and held up in the community.

Which I imagine helps with their self-esteem and sense of belonging.

What a gang member wants most of all is respect and access to dignity. There are so few pathways for that, and that’s what led a guy to the gang in the first place. Conversion is a realistic pathway to respect in a place where education is very difficult to complete, and not necessarily a guarantee of a dignified life. Even if you managed to follow the rules and you are cognitively gifted, it’s very difficult! Access to university is impossible for them. So they are looking for alternative pathways to respect, and the gang offers that. But it’s incredibly dangerous, and the church sometimes offers respect in more realistic ways. What the former gang member finds in the Pentecostal community is a community that celebrates deep transformations like his.

Has the church formalized the pathway?

It’s dangerous for the churches. Pastors are harassed and accused by police of being in alliance with gangs, for example.

So a gang member that wants to leave not only has to convince his gang but also the church that he is really in it for the long haul?

And the church has to help him. They have to commit to him as well, because he loses the income from the gang. They have to give them money if they have babies or partners; they will help them with the wedding. The church supports them with access to some form of work or occupation, because the church is under a lot pressure to make this work. When it doesn’t, they look really bad and it doesn’t always work.

Pastors put a lot of effort into figuring out what works. They are not necessarily trained as social workers or counselors, but they try to learn, as they say, aprenden a golpes, they learn the hard way, about what works or not. Sometimes they learn from what the Catholics were doing, or they will send one of their former gang members to learn a trade in the Catholic ministry. But they are constantly checking up on him, because the gang member needs more than a job, they need support and a trusting community that will walk with them through the altibajos, the ups and downs of starting over.

What could you tell us in terms of replication of these programs and lessons to take away from a broader policy perspective?

I think it would be very difficult to bottle what the evangelicals are doing. What I’ve learned is that gang ministry and prevention needs to be as local as possible, and people working with gangs need to have local contacts, brokers in the community. High level or wide interventions probably aren’t going to work that well. One of the reasons some evangelical ministries have succeeded is because pastors are local members of the community and they have on-the-ground knowledge and connections. I think they do a good job of taking the whole person into account. They know gang members need more than a job; they need respect, trusting relationships, and perhaps even an experience of transcendence, that is deeply powerful for these young men.

In terms of what can be done, you can work at the macro or micro levels. The distinction is between long-term prevention and short-term intervention. In a lot of short-term programs people burn out, and they manage to get those who were interested in leaving the gang out, but the rest stay in the gang. Those programs often turn into prevention programs.

But you need to think about a safe honorable exit, what I call the off-ramps. It’s a term I get from David Kennedy, who works with law enforcers to think about gangs. That is really what the churches have done. They have provided a pathway to dignity, to become a valued member of a new community instead of the gang community.

Prevention programs should maximize the opportunity for the development of an identity in a non-violent context. Provide them a competitive environment to develop their own skills. Human development is a good metaphor to think about this—to think of the person as having capacity that needs development, rather than just trying to get them to stop and leave the gang. The church really offers them an alternative, and the fact that it takes a lot of their time is a good thing! Time hoarding is something that evangelicals, without thinking about it, are doing.

At the macro or national level, the Catholic Church has been denouncing social cleansing projects and that’s very important. Social cleansing and iron fist policies have to be resisted and denounced because they tend to lead to the hardening of gang identity.

Since I finished conducting my research several years ago, anecdotal evidence has started accumulating suggesting that many local gang leaders are no longer making allowance for the “evangelical exemption.” In short, the reality on the ground may have changed significantly in recent years and it’s possible that many or most gang leaders no longer “trust” converted ex-gang members and treat them the same as any other “deserters.” Some people are even suggesting that the gang is now targeting evangelical ministries for violence but since I have been out of the field for a few years I’m not in a good position to confirm or deny this rumor.

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