They were born in three different countries -- Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico -- but their stories are so similar that it is hard to believe they did not grow up in the same neighborhood, or even the same home. A dysfunctional family, poverty, a lack of love and opportunities and a need for acceptance led them all into a life of crime.
They formed part of an army numbering 70,000 youths throughout Central America, according to several sources. They learned to use weapons at a young age. And they used them against other people. They also stole and sold drugs, besides consuming them, of course. But one day they decided to abandon the gang and try to repair the damage they had done, although they admit that some things cannot be fixed.
The three work in their respective countries to prevent children and young people from viewing gangs as an escape from poverty, as a way to find acceptance and gain respect. The three are participating here in a continental conference to identify solutions to the problem, which has already become a regional epidemic affecting mainly youth. The slogan of the participants and of the conference: Forging generations of youth without violence (#JóvenesSinViolencia). The initiative has gained the support of experts and governments alike.
Below are the stories of how the three left gang life behind and devoted themselves to preventing violence.
Thief of smiles
Cecilio Torres Juárez’s mother threw him out of the house when he was just 10 years old. Without a home or a family, he lived on the streets until a drug dealer in his Honduran neighborhood took him in. Soon he was also selling drugs. He bought his first pistol at 13.
“It was bigger than I was,” he recalls. “It didn’t even fit in my hands, but it earned me the respect of the others. Or fear. Actually, I think it was fear. I felt important because they respected me,” he says.
He used that gun many times during his life as a criminal. “I not only had drug enemies. The police also wanted to kill me,” he says.
But when he was 17, two things happened that led to his transformation. One was that he survived an attack with assault weapons. The attackers shot at close range but he managed to escape. When he found a safe place to hide, he saw that the bullets had only grazed his clothing.
But then something even more decisive happened. “One day I met this baby girl. She was just three months old and her parents were giving her away. Even know I lived in that ugly, dangerous world, I decided to adopt her and give her all the love I never had. That awakened a love of life in me, as well as a fear of dying and the will to change.”
The transformation process was long and difficult. But today Cecilio runs a folkdance school and practices sports. His best friend is a former member of a rival gang who ended up a paraplegic due to a bullet. Now his mission is to keep kids from seeing gangs as an option.
“Living with them awakened the inner child in me,” he says. He says that recently he had to appear in court for a legal problem pending from his criminal days. He told the judge: “I have changed, but I’m still a thief: A thief of smiles because I work with children.”
Repairing the damage
Agustín Coroy also grew up in a poor, dysfunctional home. He says that the first time he can remember someone showing him affection was when a neighborhood drug dealer asked him to buy him a soda.
His life with the gang, surrounded by drugs and weapons, began to change one day when he was being tortured in jail. He promised God that if he let him survive that torment (the jailers were pulling off his toenails), he would devote his life to preventing youth from turning to a life of crime.
“I did so much harm to my country, Guatemala, to so many young people, so many families. So it was time to repair all the damage. I began to work with organizations,” he says.
Thanks to a program for former gang members, he found a permanent job, but he soon realized that he was not fulfilling his promise, so he left the job to work with his community.
One of his first activities was to organize a soccer championship. “The ball cost us 95 quetzales (approximately US$ 11), but with that small investment we prevented young people from dying. For eight months, there was no murder in the community,” he says.
Thanks to that job, Agustín became one of the founders of Jóvenes Contra la Violencia, an organization established in Guatemala in 2009 and that now has chapters throughout Central America. Eradicating violence “is not going to be easy; all organizations must work together,” he says.
“We were victims of violence as kids and then in our adolescence and youth we became perpetrators of violence,” says Carlos Cruz. He founded Cauce Ciudadano together with other former gang members in Mexico City. The movement works with children and young people, as well as with jails and several communities.
“At 16, I was trafficking weapons and dynamite, and robbing homes. It was a phenomenon that we carried over from the violent life in our neighborhood and families, and also because of the lack of institutions. Of the 23 people my age in my neighborhood, only three of us have survived,” he says.
In 2000, his friend was murdered. That led Carlos and other gang members to begin to think about changing their lives. “We began to value who we were as people and to realize that our life experiences could serve as a lesson for others,” he says.
In the process, they decided to renounce violence as a life option and began to address problems associated with poverty, the lack of opportunities and the fact that they themselves were victims of violence. Several organizations supported them in this process.
Today Carlos Cruz says he is still a gang member, but he belongs to a gang that builds peace. He claims that a future without violence starts in the community rather than in the family. “Children and teenagers belong to everyone. We have to take care of them. That is what we are doing.”