Even Gangsters Need Their Mamas

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Jose Cabezas / AFP /Getty

Members of the Mara 18 juvenile gang in a cell of the police station of Ilopango, El Salvador.

With his cap visor pulled low over his face, Jalson Espinoza watches a group of gang members from a rival neighborhood push through a massive throng of Sandinista supporters gathered to hear President Daniel Ortega speak. To the outside observer, many of the other young men in the crowd looked just as tough and menacing, dressed in bandanas and going shirtless to show off their tattoos. But very few of them are true gangbangers, Espinoza says. "You can tell who the real vagos are by the way they walk," he says in a raspy voice, using the Nicaraguan term for gangsters.

Espinoza should know. At 26, his street resume makes America's most notorious gangsta rappers look pampered by comparison. In a decade of gang life, Espinoza has been jailed 14 times, shot twice, had his jaw broken with a machete, and lost an eye to a rock fired from a slingshot.

But the thug life is a thing of the past, Espinoza says. He has traded in his gang colors for the red and black of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, for which he works as a youth organizer in a rough neighborhood in Ciudad Sandino.

In Nicaragua, a movement that started off channeling youth rebellion into the violent overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 is once again the governing party. And in many poor neighborhoods, the Sandinista Front has more street cred than the local youth gang.

Under the leadership of the National Police, an agency created by the revolutionary government of the 1980s, the Sandinistas are using their status on the street to win the war on the gang problem that has plagued much of Central America. But it's a war they're waging without violence.

Rather than adopting the disastrous heavy-handed anti-gang polices of neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which have actually led to an escalation of violence and repression, the Nicaraguan police several years ago launched an intervention program aimed at engaging young men to turn them away from gang life. Since the program began in 2003, police claim that gang membership has declined dramatically. According to official statistics, 42 gangs have been demobilized and almost 4,000 of their members have been reintegrated into society. Of the 62 gangs that existed here four years ago, only 20 remain, with a total of 363 still-active gang members. Those are impressive figures in a Central American region where total gang membership is estimated at around 69,000.

"We don't need more jails or laws in Nicaragua, we need more opportunities for young people," says Commissioner Hamyn Gurdián, head of the police effort to demobilize gangs. Gurdián — who during the 1970s, at age 16, had gone into the mountains to join the Sandinista rebels — says that guerrilla experience, shared by many police officers, helps them to empathize with gang members and identify personally with the three-step demobilization process: cease-fire, disarmament and social reintegration. "That experience made us sensitive to their problems," he said. "Their life, the lack of opportunities they have, that is what it was like for us, only instead of fighting with assault rifles, they throw rocks."

The Sandinista government's message of peace and reconciliation, and its populist dedication to economic empowerment of the poor, appears to be resonating on the streets. "For young people, the last 16 years have been lost to governments that didn't give us any opportunities," Espinoza says, repeating President Daniel Ortega's line about the three conservative administrations that ruled before his return to power this year. "Maybe [Ortega] will give us new opportunities and jobs."

Old-fashioned Nicaraguan nationalism may also have helped keep the gang culture at bay, since the major transnational gangs that terrorize Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the Mara Salvatrucha and the M-18 — are essentially foreign, originating in Los Angeles. Mauricio Bustamante, 19, spent three years living in Guatemala spying on M-18 for the Salvatrucha before returning to Nicaragua and getting involved in his old local gang, the Cumbas. He says that Nicaraguan gangs have rejected the culture of the Salvatrucha and M-18 in keeping with the Nicaraguan spirit of resistance to foreign intervention.

The strongest pillar of support for the anti-gang efforts of the National Police, however, comes from within the community. Many gang members still live with their mothers and grandmothers, who can play a key role in the demobilization and reintegration process, Gurdián says. "My mother told me she wanted nothing to do with me after the fourth time I got arrested," says Espinoza. "But once she saw that I was trying to get out of the gang, she immediately started to support me again."

The police are helped by the fact that under the scars and tattoos, even the toughest vago is still a mama's boy at heart.

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