Brenneman, “Wrestling the Devil”

Brenneman, Robert.  2015.  Wrestling the Devil: Conversion and Exit from Central American Gangs.  Latin American Research Review 49(S): 112-128.

Abstract: A crisis of urban violence has emerged in northern Central America during the past two decades. Although youth gangs are responsible for only a portion of this violence, punitive approaches to dealing with gang violence have sharpened public hostility toward gang members and created a context conducive to the practice of “social cleansing” aimed at reducing gang violence by eliminating gang-affiliated youth through extrajudicial executions. Against this backdrop of public anger and resentment aimed at gang youth, a sizeable number of Evangelical-Pentecostal pastors and lay workers have developed ministries aimed at rescuing gang members and restoring them to society, often making considerable sacrifices and taking personal risks in the process. After describing the difficul-ties and risks associated with leaving the gang, this article takes a sociological approach to gang member conversions to discover the resources that Evangelical-Pentecostal congregations and gang ministries offer to former gang members facing the crisis of spoiled identity. I draw on semistructured interviews conducted in 2007 and 2008 with former gang members and gang ministry coordinators in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and a handful of follow-up interviews conducted in 2013.

O’Neill, “Secure the Soul”

O’Neill, Kevin Lewis.  2015. Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Publisher’s Description: “I’m not perfect,” Mateo confessed. “Nobody is. But I try.” Secure the Soul shuttles between the life of Mateo, a born-again ex-gang member in Guatemala and the gang prevention programs that work so hard to keep him alive. Along the way, this poignantly written ethnography uncovers the Christian underpinnings of Central American security. In the streets of Guatemala City—amid angry lynch mobs, overcrowded prisons, and paramilitary death squads—millions of dollars empower church missions, faith-based programs, and seemingly secular security projects to prevent gang violence through the practice of Christian piety. With Guatemala increasingly defined by both God and gangs, Secure the Soul details an emerging strategy of geopolitical significance: regional security by way of good Christian living.

Flores, “God’s Gangs”

Flores, Edward Orozco. 2013. God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity, and Gang Recovery. New York: NYU Press.

Release Date: December 11, 2013

Publisher’s Description: Los Angeles is the epicenter of the American gang problem. Rituals and customs from Los Angeles’ eastside gangs, including hand signals, graffiti, and clothing styles, have spread to small towns and big cities alike. Many see the problem with gangs as related to urban marginality—for a Latino immigrant population struggling with poverty and social integration, gangs offer a close-knit community. Yet, as Edward Orozco Flores argues in God’s Gangs, gang members can be successfully redirected out of gangs through efforts that change the context in which they find themselves, as well as their notions of what it means to be a man.  Flores here illuminates how Latino men recover from gang life through involvement in urban, faith-based organizations. Drawing on participant observation and interviews with Homeboy Industries, a Jesuit-founded non-profit that is one of the largest gang intervention programs in the country, and with Victory Outreach, a Pentecostal ministry with over 600 chapters, Flores demonstrates that organizations such as these facilitate recovery from gang life by enabling gang members to reinvent themselves as family men and as members of their community. The book offers a window into the process of redefining masculinity. As Flores convincingly shows, gang members are not trapped in a cycle of poverty and marginality. With the help of urban ministries, such men construct a reformed barrio masculinity to distance themselves from gang life.

Jesus and the Gang: Book Review

Wolseth, Jon. 2011.  Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban Honduras. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

By: Henri Gooren (Oakland University)

This fine ethnography begins with a murder. “They shot him, they shot El Títere. El Títere is dead” (1). Children are shouting and running; soon a crowd forms near the shirtless corpse of a young man who was “barely twenty” (2). Wolseth describes the confusion and the excitement of the local people and the laconic reaction of an older woman, a neighbor of the victim’s grandmother: “It’s too bad that they shot him, but he was a gang member. I have sympathy only for the family” (2). That same night Wolseth discovers the victim was the best friend of his key informant, Sergio. “His closest gang buddy had been gunned down by a rival gang in front of his buddy’s house.[..] Sergio said, “They shot him seven times.[..] I remember that the people there said that when they put the first [shot] in him he said, ‘No, grandma. I left it [the gang],’ he said, yelled that way, and he fell to the ground. They shot him once here,” Sergio points to his stomach, “another here,” he points to his cheek, “and he shot him more” (4). Continue reading

O’Neill, “Left Behind”

O’Neill, Kevin. 2013. “Left Behind: Security, Salvation, and the Subject of Prevention.” Cultural Anthropology 28(2):204-226.

Abstract: “In North Carolina, a faith-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization facilitates a child sponsorship program that connects North American evangelical Christians with at-risk children in one of postwar Guatemala City’s most violent neighborhoods: La Paloma. Pitched in the name of gang prevention, child sponsors help create a context in which these Guatemalan kids might choose God over gangs. Based on fieldwork in North Carolina and in Guatemala, with both sponsors and the sponsored, this article explores how child sponsorship makes the work of gang prevention dependent on the work of self-cultivation. It is an ethnographic approach attuned to what this article understands as the subject of prevention, that is, the individual imagined and acted upon by the imperative to prevent. This includes at-risk youths, in all their racialized otherness, but also (and increasingly so) North American evangelicals who self-consciously craft their subjectivities through their participation in gang prevention. The subject of prevention’s observable outcome is a kind of segregation with its own spatial logic. The practice of evangelical gang prevention ultimately produces an observable kind of inequality that says something about the surgically selective nature of Central American security today. Some Guatemalan youth connect with North Americans. Others get left behind.”