“It’s easier to be part of a gang than to go to school.” That’s what a young man, who I’ll call Daniel (for his safety), told me when I met him in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The Egan Fellows and the rest of the CRS delegation had weaved our way up into the hills that surround the heart of the city, windows rolled down so that those looking out would be able to identify us and permit our safe passage. As we traveled on these winding dirt roads, I couldn’t help but wonder what jobs were available in this area, where businesses seemed largely absent and the homes were exceptionally modest. The beautiful view from the hills sharply contrasted with the poverty in the neighborhood.
Daniel joined a gang when he was 10 years old. He was in 4th grade. The gang gave him marijuana and cocaine to sell inside his school. He needed the money. Once he started dealing, he found that not only could he now provide for his basic needs, he could even help out his friends.
Looking back (and describing what he sees presently), he describes this type of recruitment as an epidemic. Gangs prey on vulnerable, naïve young boys who often don’t understand the dangerous path they have taken. When kids are playing on the soccer field, gang members stand in the corner or they approach them on the street, telling them how easy it is to earn a little money. Little by little they are drawn in, doing more tasks for the gang, and then they really start to move up in the gang “when they start killing people.”
Daniel continued to deal drugs in his school for a year and a half until his promotion. He became a “flag.” Flags keep lookout over a certain area, keeping tabs on everyone, always keeping an eye out for “strange people.” Daniel’s watch lasted until 4 AM. He kept an eye out for rivals, but also for the police, so that incriminating items could be hidden before a raid.
Some members of the police were on the gang’s payroll. They would call in advance of a raid so that they would have time to hide everything. Nevertheless, the raids often involved shootouts.
Daniel wasn’t there for one raid that turned violent. His 13-year-old friend was shot and killed. When he found out, he ran to see his bullet-riddled body. It was a devastating moment. But his first response was the desire for vengeance. Daniel doesn’t sugarcoat his state of mind at the time. He doesn’t pretend that he was more conflicted or struggling with reconciling his lifestyle and his values. He admits that he was immersed in a world of violence and the values that accompany it. Even with his close friend killed, he still felt “big and protected.”
After this, Daniel moved from a rented house to his own house in a different area. He stopped meeting up with the gang, because he feared his mom would figure out what he was up to. But they told him to report immediately. And he did.
He began selling heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and more in his new neighborhood. It was a lucrative endeavor: he would get it for cheap and sell it at a significant markup. He did this between 2011 and 2013.
Then something changed. He met a girl. She accepted him for who he was, but was scared for his life. And she encouraged him to return to church and turn to God, to give up a life that was so harmful to others.
Daniel realized that he didn’t want to die. He realized that God had given him gifts that he could use to do something positive. He began attending church.
But walking away was not so simple. A rival gang was seen as the “church gang.” Daniel’s gang grew suspicious he was switching sides, something that could invite attempts on his life. Despite his terror, he put his trust in God and decided to talk to the leaders in his gang. They agreed to let him walk away, but ensured him that if they saw him involved in another gang, he would be killed. They would monitor him for the next few months, until they saw his conversion was real.
Daniel is in school right now. He has trouble finding a job in his neighborhood. He notes that most people start working at 14 to help their families survive. He went down to the heart of the city for work but could only find a full-time opportunity, which he declined so that he could finish his education. He hopes to attend college and get a degree.
Daniel is involved in a program called Sowers of Peace, where he and other members of his community receive training on ways to make their homes and communities more peaceful. This project from Catholic Relief Services works to build up the resiliency of youth and families in areas with high rates of violence. Because many young people who become involved in criminal activity come from difficult family situations, helping parents and youth to communicate better, establish healthy relationships, and work together toward shared goals can play a critical role in violence prevention. Daniel talked about how the training has improved his relationship with his younger brother and showed him how to support his brother as he experiences the challenges of growing up in the area.
Daniel still has friends involved in gang life. Less than a month ago one was killed and another ran away to avoid the same fate. But now the second friend is being blamed for the death of the first and has been given the option to stay away or face death. Daniel told this friend about his past. He often keeps his history with the gang hidden to avoid judgement and backlash, but will reveal it, usually to youths, when he thinks it can make a difference in someone’s life. He talked to him about God and taking a different path in life. It made an impact. His friend is now working and taking classes.
Daniel wants his government to do more to help young people—protect children, give them organized activities, ensure that they have access to a quality education and food (many get into gangs “just to eat”). They need to do more to get people adequate jobs that cover life’s essential needs. He doesn’t use the words, but integral human development is the key to addressing the violence that kills young people like his friends and sends boys down the treacherous path he started down in 4th grade. But until such progress is made, Daniel will try to live his own life righteously and quietly steer other boys and young men away from gangs.
Daniel’s is a story of redemption. It shows the power of both love and faith in changing people’s lives. Many of us are too quick to assume others are irredeemable. We inoculate ourselves from the lived reality of those who don’t live respectable bourgeois lives. But Christians are called to reach out, to move beyond our comfort zones and encounter those living on the peripheries. Otherwise our faith becomes salt that has lost its taste.
Daniel doesn’t excuse the wrongs he has committed. He doesn’t blame the structural injustice that was all around him for his own actions, despite being just ten when he started working for a gang. Human beings sin. Christians sin. How we respond is a testament to our devotion to Christ. Daniel has responded by turning away from that life and helping others. Will we atone for our own indifference? Will we do more to help people like Daniel whose lives have taken a dangerous turn or will we merely sit in judgement? Will we do what we can to heal broken communities and foster integral human development or will we just go on as though these people don’t exist?
Daniel’s life shows us the power of redemption. How will we respond?