And instead we were: “search without warrants!” “stop them base-less charges” and beating on our way to our weekly gang intervention group we had gotten out but we were being punished for what we have been.
Finally I had enough and I moved to a friend’s house in Colorado for a chance of a better life. I got a degree in criminal justice. I worked in youth detention facilities as a youth councilor to continue to get kids out of gangs. I thought my gang problems were things of the past.
But then a few years later I was accused of moving to Colorado to start MS-13 criminal activities, and don’t laugh, I was arrested again; I couldn’t believe it.
I was now in a federal court room facing a possible 48-years sentence. For two years, I studied my case. I wrote my own court motions and defended myself in court. Finally, justice prevailed and the jailer opened up my cell door and told me that my case had been dismissed. All of my charges have been dropped and that I was free to go.
But that was two years of my life gone, punished by society for my past even though I was trying to do everything to be build a new future. We all know that, it’s important to get kids out of gangs but we forget that, they aren’t set up to succeed once they leave.
Most people join a gang because they feel disconnected, alone, alienated. They just want to belong, to feel valued, to have a purpose.
Looking back, it’s really surprise why I joined MS-13?! My mom worked around the clock. I was alone a lot and everybody around me was from a gang. When I left MS-13, I had my gang intervention group to support me. Most people are not that lucky, they’re judged and punished by society for their past and they have nowhere to turn to and nowhere to go.
70% of kids, who tried to leave a gang, but don’t have another support system in place, failed. 70%! I realized that the only way to succeed in getting kids out of gangs and keeping them out of gangs is to create an environment that’s going to support them every step of the way.
Today, I’m the executive director of Homies Unidos, Denver, a gang violence prevention and intervention organization. We empower youth and their families to become advocates of social change rather than agents of self-destruction.
Let me give you an example. Growing up, David, as I was told, he was good for nothing. As a teenager, he became heavily involved in gangs. How did he get out and stay out?
First things first, we helped David realize that the sense of self-esteem that a gang provides you, is false. That you have to love yourself first; nobody else can do that for you. In talking groups, David and teens with similar experiences discussed how their negative actions have impacted their families, their communities and each other.
David began taking responsibility for his actions. We helped them re-enroll into high schools as they focused on their journey to graduation and then we built the social effort — community and activity. We went fishing and camping to ball parks and family fun centers.
We understand that strong families are key to violence prevention, so we invited David’s parents to our group sessions and activities. These interactions build the mutual understanding across generations.
Finally, we helped David realize the power in his own voice to make that difference again. He learned to organize youth groups and then lead the stories of justice conversations with people that have been impacted by gang violence.
David had since graduated from high school, he works as an electrician, he’s attending college and he’s a frequent guest speaker and role model for youth in our groups. These dramatic changes in David’s life were only possible because, we surrounded him with the welcoming community that was fully invested in this success.
In this way we have helped hundreds of kids get out of gangs and stay out of gangs. But we’re only one organization. As a society, we can all do better.
When we isolate people, alienate them and punish them for past mistakes, we’re just continuing the cycle and we want people to leave gangs and re-enter society, then that means we have to let them re-enter society.
And that means attending school, living down the street and having a job, would you be willing to hire a person with a criminal history? What about if that person has an MS-13 tattoo on his face?
People just want to belong, to be a part of something. We are the ones that can help them find it.