Gerardo Lopez grew up in gang territory in Los Angeles, California and was just 14 years old when he joined MS-13, the notorious Salvadorian gang. Why did he join and why did he leave?
In this courageous talk, Gerardo reveals how we can help others get out and stay out of gangs.
Listen to the MP3 audio of this TEDx Talk:
Following is the full text of Gerardo’s TEDx Talk titled “I Was an MS-13 Gang Member. Here’s How I Got Out.”
Gerardo Lopez – TRANSCRIPT:
You might have heard of about them in the news, they’d be called murderers, violent, destructive, law breaking and criminals.
And I can tell you that a lot of what you heard is true, because I used to be a member of MS-13.
Today I’m going to tell you why I joined the gang and how I eventually got out. But first, let me take you all the way back to the beginning.
Picture this: El Salvador, the 1980’s, a brutally violent civil war; military soldiers kicking in front doors in the middle of the night; kids hiding shaking underneath their beds as they heard the sounds of boots approaching; mothers laying and puddles are all blood watching their children get taken away and forced to join the war.
Thousands of Salvadorian refugees porting to the United States desperate for a better life. One of those refugees was a little boy named Nelson. He and his family landed in a ghetto of Los Angeles. While his parents worked multiple jobs to earn a living, Nelson was alone a lot in a new country, trying to adapt to new customs and a new language.
When he and the other Salvadorian kids went to school, they were bullied by the Chicano kids because of the different accents and different cultures.
And one day, they had enough! They took all the violence they’d known as kids, all the anger they built up, and they formed a group of their own: MS-13.
And so, the victims of bully became the bullies themselves. We’ve heard that story before, haven’t we?
MS-13 is the tragic outcome of a tragic environment. In 1996, the U.S. government deported thousands of immigrants. One of them was Nelson. By now he was an adult, he spoke English, he wore the gangster clothing like the Nike Cortez shoes, Dickies Pants, Panettone shirts and head bandanas. He was full of tattoos.
He didn’t fit into El Salvador’s culture anymore, and the young Salvadorians noticed but they didn’t bully him. They were in awe of him. He looked like one of those people from the movies: they wanted to be just like him. And that meant, that they wanted to join MS-13.
And so there you have it: a country trying to recover and rebuild from a civil war suddenly had their first ever gang problem on their hands and it only got worse.
Now, I’m not Salvadorian, I’m part Mexican and Argentinian and born in L.A but the neighborhood that I grew up in was MS-13 territory. Even as a kid in an elementary school I knew that I don’t want to be a part of a gang.
My mother worked 14 hours a day at a Sweatshop trying to make ends meet. So I was out in the streets alone a lot.
One day, an MS-13 gang member pointed a gun at my face and robbed me. So I would try to dodge him. I leaved through the back of my apartment building and hopped over fences in order to avoid being seen.
But that meant I would enter another gang’s territory and they will approach me. I would have to travel miles outside of my neighborhood in order to escape the gangs. No matter where I went, I wasn’t safe.
I used to watch it from my apartment window. One night they were out in the streets celebrating this man who just made his way back from El Salvador. Nelson! Remember him? He had respect, power and pride — everything that I didn’t have.
I wondered what it would be like to be him, to be revered in your own neighborhood. That night, I made a decision. I was 14 years old and I was going to join MS-13.
After I was initiated, I felt relief instantly. I walked around with my head up high. Remember that theme song from Cheers where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. It was like that everyday.
But it was long before I regretted my decision. You see, the rival gang members have found out that I chose MS-13 over them and they were furious. I became a target overnight but it was too late.
What was I supposed to do? It’d be like getting married in a week and you start like: Uh man, I mean, I made a mistake! How do I get out of this? But you can’t; it’s not that easy. What would your friends and family say? What would your new partner do?
So you stick it out. And a few weeks later you start telling yourself: “Oh kid! this is just so bad!” I could stick this out!
Months passe by and you form a bond, a connection and you feel you’d do anything for that person.
I remember when I got my first MS-13 tattoo, as that tattoo is going to pierce my skin, I like to think about was the love that I have for my gang. And then my mom was going to be pretty furious if she found out about it.
I couldn’t wait to show off my new to my homies, a bond that’ll be there for life and when I get locked up again I take my shirt off with pride.
I made bad choices. I committed assaults and robberies that will land me in jail for years as a juvenile. And in there I got a reputation for starting fights on rival gang members. Every time I got out, I gained even more respect. My homies wanted to be just like me. I felt that I owned their territory and no rival gang was going to go in and disrespect it.
I was willing to defend it at all cost, even if that meant me dying over it. But sometimes I ask myself: am I willing to spend the rest of my life in jail? I put my mom and grandma through a lot. When I was out they stayed up for hours lighting candles, praying that it wasn’t my dead body laying on a leaf that white sheet.
When I was in jail they visited me and asked me when I was going to change. I was tired — tired of seeing my family suffer, tired of going to my friends’ funerals. My life had become the tragic outcome of a tragic environment.
My blind love for MS-13 started to fade. I wanted to get out but I just didn’t know how.
Then one night, my whole life changed forever. I was 20 years old, out in the street celebrating my recent jail release when Alex Sanchez of former MS-13 gang member that I looked up to approached me, he told me he had started this gang intervention group and wanted me to join. I was thrilled. Finally I could get out.
The parting was reluctant. I had gained respect, power and pride within the gang and I just didn’t know who I’d be without it again.
Then I looked up at my apartment building and standing there at the window was my younger brother staring at me the same way that I would stare at Nelson. I knew I had to try to get out.
At my first meeting I met rival gang members and their families and we found out that we all felt the same. Their parents cried the same tears as my parents did. The only thing that separated us was the name of the gang.
We learned how to express ourselves without using drugs and violence, and the gang intervention group took us traveling to different places to share our story and more people listened.
The more we talked, the more we felt the sense of respect, power and pride, I was able to fade away from the gang and ultimately being able to leave it. After that was the hard part but we were in the midst of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart crash scandal, now you’ll think that a police department will be welcoming of a gang intervention group but they didn’t.
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.