Rocio Santacruz must convince people everyday that gang members are human.
Being International Campaign Director for Homies Unidos, an organization dedicated to helping current and former gang members improve their lives in Central America and the United States, is a tough job, Santacruz said.
With many people blaming high crime rates in El Salvador, Honduras and throughout Central America on the deportation of gang and former gang members from the United States, officials in Central America have responded with forceful and sometimes deadly methods.
Their “zero tolerance” policies make it illegal, in some instances, to belong to a gang or have gang-affiliated tattoos. With get-tough gang names, like El Salvador’s “La Mano Dura” (The Hard Hand), these policies receive wide support from their citizens.
Santacruz said the public’s approval of these policies presents a great challenge for her organization.
“We’re trying to change the discourse,” Santacruz said. “This is a public health issue, not a security issue.”
According to a report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, in Honduras alone, there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 gang members.
The report suggests that some people in Honduras, particularly the youth, are not receiving due process of law. It reads, in part: “Members of the police committed extrajudicial killings. Well-organized private and vigilante security forces were believed to have committed a number of arbitrary and summary executions. Human rights groups accused former security force officials and the business community of colluding to organize ‘death squads.'”
Citing a fire last summer at a prison in Honduras that killed 104 “Mara Salvatrucha” gang members, Santacruz and Homies Unidos Program Director Alex Sanchez said Honduras and El Salvador engage in “state sponsored violence.” They contend authorities deliberately set the fire.
Homies Unidos’ biggest hurdle is not to prove those allegations, or the existence of “death squads” that target gang members. It is convincing people to care.
The argument against this is: Gang members commit crimes and kill people. Why should people care about them?
Because people can change, Sanchez said.
A former member of the “Mara Salvatrucha” gang, Sanchez is one of Homies Unidos’ rehabilitated role models.
Sanchez knows firsthand what happens when a deportee arrives in a country he no longer knows. It happened to him when he was deported to El Salvador at age 22. He had left El Salvador behind when he was 7 years old.
“Nobody was waiting for me at the airport,” Sanchez said. “You didn’t know where the hell you were. You see graffiti writing everywhere. It’s hard for somebody.”
He made his way back into the U.S. illegally and began to turn his life around.
After attending a gang conference in Santa Cruz in the late 1990s, Sanchez said he brought some of what he learned back to his neighborhood.
“I couldn’t picture my neighborhood not being a part of this,” Sanchez said. “Everybody was getting help. I felt like I was having fun. I saw my homies laughing like little kids. It was the first time they could be themselves.”
That was a new beginning for Sanchez.
“I was still going through a process,” Sanchez said. “Searching for a meaning to life. Coming back (to the United States) illegally. The biggest thing was my son.”
Sanchez worked for minimum wage at a sweatshop to support his new motivation: his child.
He mobilized gang members through Homies Unidos, and received the support of former California State Sen. Tom Hayden, and the wrath of the Committee Resource Against Street Hoodlums, the LAPD’s now disbanded anti-gang unit.
The LAPD refused to believe that Sanchez had only good intentions, and many raids ensued, Sanchez said.
“They told me (later) they thought we were trying to create a super-gang,” Sanchez said.
“LAPD is a super-gang,” said Jose Lam, also known as “Azteka,” a rap artist and old neighborhood friend of Sanchez.
Lam has worked with Homies Unidos in the past and was in their office to discuss doing some speaking presentations. Lam spent 10 years of his youth incarcerated in the California Youth Authority, and during the last three years of his sentence, he began to speak to younger kids about the pitfalls of criminal behavior.
“I made a promise that if all my (artistic) dreams came true, I would use it for something positive,” Lam said.
Lam and Sanchez talked about their younger days when they were roommates and both admittedly were still “in transition.”
But they’ve changed.
Sanchez is dedicated to helping young people experience the same changes he has experienced, but admits he is not always successful.
“It’s hard to get these kids to see that (gang) life is a lie,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez spoke proudly of the “Epiphany Project,” a rehabilitation program that currently has 47 people enrolled, and 40 others on a waiting list. There is also a tattoo-removing program, where after 10 weeks in the “Epiphany Project,” participants get tattoos removed for free.
He mentioned graduates of the program who have gone on to college and are now buying homes.
“Those are the type of stories they don’t tell in the media,” Sanchez said.
Gilbert Grinie had his own untold story.
At age 57, he is as unlikely a man as any to be the educational director for Homies Unidos.
Born in Silver City, New Mexico, Grinie spent part of his youth incarcerated, and only received as high as an eighth-grade education. He later served time in a Texas prison.
He failed at his first attempt at higher education, at Western New Mexico University, but he said the experience was significant for two reasons. First, a professor told Grinie he was not college material, and he should look for a trade. Then, another professor requested a meeting with Grinie, and when Grinie attempted to skip out, the professor said, “I just wanted you to know I believe in you.”
“Who is this lady telling me this?” Grinie thought at the time. “I was a complete fuck-up.”
Last year, Grinie earned a master’s degree in counseling from CSU, Los Angeles. He wrote a 143-page thesis entitled “An Historical Perspective on the Growth of Gangs in Los Angeles: Past, Present and Future.”
As a child, Grinie couldn’t even imagine writing a single page, he said.
“As a youngster, we were told we were stupid,” Grinie said. “We were told to be cooks, (and) janitors.”
Through his work at Homies Unidos and by speaking to students, Grinie wants to break the cycle of fear that surrounds many Latino communities.
“(It’s) like death,” Grinie said. “You’re afraid of what’s out there.”
Grinie offers himself as a mentor to anybody who might need his help.
Rocio Santacruz said mentorship is the key to reaching many of the troubled youth in poor neighborhoods.
Santacruz, raised in the City of Terrace in East Los Angeles, attended UC Berkeley, and rejects the idea that poverty is the sole factor affecting troubled youth.
She said she knows plenty of people like herself and Silvia Beltran, executive director of Homies Unidos, who are products of poor neighborhoods, but who never got involved in gang activity.
Kids need positive role models, Santacruz said.
She added that the world needs to have, if not a positive view, at least a better historical view, of the lives many gang members from Central America have led.
Santacruz reminds people that many of the immigrants from Central America became refugees who had to flee their countries because of wars supported by the United States.
She said that many Central American children were left behind by their parents.
“For 5- to-7 year olds, there was a rupture,” Santacruz said. “As children, (it was) a very traumatic experience.”
Eventually, some of these children had to travel alone
with “coyotes,” undercover smugglers, to reach the United States, Santacruz said. And many grew up to become the gang bangers that people throughout the U.S. and Central America now want to condemn.
“(Once people are informed) that these kids come from that history, then you can talk about solutions,” Santacruz said.