The Transnational Gang Threat, Part 4: Adding Prevention to Intervention

Series ends with a look at how communities are working to fight gangs.

The Transnational Gang Threat, Part 4: Adding Prevention to Intervention

Luis Ramirez


The Transnational Gang Threat
Part 4: Adding Prevention to Intervention

07/29/14

In an impoverished neighborhood in Guatemala known for its violent gang activity, a handful of youngsters show visitors around a small compound next to a playground and soccer field. Although the buildings have dirt floors and few amenities, they represent a future for these children—one designed to keep them beyond the reaches of gangs.

Mentors hired by the community help the youths with their studies there, encourage them to stay in school, teach them how to plant and cultivate a garden, and remind them of the dangers associated with gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street.

Most of the children live with those dangers on a daily basis. Gang crime is severe in Guatemala. An average of nearly 16 homicides occur daily in the country, and most of them are gang-related. “My goal is to stay in school and one day become an auto mechanic,” one of the boys in the program said. “With gangs, there is no future.”

 

Programs That Work

During a visit to Durham, North Carolina, the CACIE group got a look at several community-based anti-gang programs that are working.

“We are implementing a variety of strategies here, from prevention to suppression,” said Michelle Young, a participant in last year’s inaugural CACIE training class. She directs Project B.U.I.L.D., a gang intervention program in Durham County.

Working with the city and county governments, police and sheriff’s departments, and various community groups, Young said Durham’s comprehensive plan to fight gangs has been in place for years and is paying dividends.

“All the programs the CACIE group saw here are taken from evidence-based models,” she said, “which means they been evaluated in other U.S. communities and have been found to be effective. They decrease gang participation and violence.” She added that many of the programs could easily be replicated in Central American communities. “None of them are really expensive—it’s just a matter of being trained on the curriculum.”

The anti-gang programs in Durham include:

- Project B.U.I.L.D.: A gang intervention program designed for at-risk youths ages 12 to 21.

- Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.): A gang education program for fourth- to sixth-graders taught by officers from the city police and county sheriff’s departments.

- Strengthening Families: A gang prevention program taught in Spanish and English that strengthens ties between parents and their kids.

- Enlaces: This outreach program implemented by Duke University is aimed at elementary and middle-school students having difficulty at school who are at risk of joining a gang.

 

The youth program in the impoverished outskirts of Villa NuevaGuatemala’s second largest cityis called Project Hope and is an example of how communities are working to fight the gang threat through prevention as well as police intervention. That deterrence approach—keeping young people from being recruited by gangs—is a fundamental goal of the Central American Community Impact Exchange program (CACIE), an FBI-led initiative.

CACIE recently conducted a training class for law enforcement and community leaders from six Central American countries and the U.S. aimed at exposing participants to community-based prevention programs that work so they might be implemented in other places.

“We want to change the culture in these dangerous neighborhoods,” said Luis Ramirez, a National Civilian Police officer in Guatemala. His department has placed a new emphasis on community-based policing, recently launching a 14-month training program in which graduating officers will have the equivalent of a master’s degree in community policing.

“We are constantly working on strategies to investigate the gangs and to stop the threat,” Ramirez said. “Community programs to keep kids from joining gangs are one more strategy. We need to pay more attention to these at-risk kids.”

In Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, many teens don’t go to school and don’t work. Often, they come from broken homes, their parents are not around, and they are unsupervised. “The goal is to keep these youths from being idle,” Ramirez said, “and to give them hope for the future.” But resources to create and fund after-school and other programs like Project Hope are often in scarce supply in Central American countries like Guatemala.

“These are very challenging circumstances,” Ramirez acknowledged. But a unified effort can make a difference, as CACIE participants saw in Villa Nueva and in Durham, North Carolina (see sidebar). “We all work togetherthe church, private enterprise, and the state,” Ramirez said. “Individually, we might not have resources, but everyone can bring something to the table. Communities are made by everyone.”

“We hope this year’s CACIE class will take the best of what they learned and implement similar programs in their own communities,” said Special Agent Rich Baer, who helps administer the program. “Because of the strong bonds they formed during the program, we are confident they will be good resources for each other going forward.”