Padre Chiqui and the Gangs
Recently, the police command has begun to remove troops from various police units to combat gangs, which have become one of the most serious problems of public safety.
As often happens, they are wrong. Gangs cannot be fought by adding police unprepared for that purpose. Moreover, the fight against gangs is not primarily a matter of repression.
At the end of the Alberto Fujimori administration, very harsh laws were enacted, punishing gangs excessively. They were useless, because the phenomenon has continued to grow.
Instead of learning from some successful experiments, supporting and replicating them, failed policies are being emphasized.
THE GANGS OF EL AGUSTINO. One such experiments with visible achievements is the one led in El Agustino by José Ignacio Mantecón, Padre 'Chiqui', a Saragossa native who has been living in El Agustino 23 years. He heads the Virgen de Nazaret parish, in an area of about 150,000 people.
'Chiqui' began working with youth gangs 12 years ago. At that time, 36 gangs comprising hundreds of young people had engulfed the district.
At first, he joined forces with the commissioner, a police commander who was concerned about the problem and interested in helping young people. However, the commissioner was transferred and the program they had undertaken was aborted.
When there is no policy from the Ministry of Interior to deal with the gangs, the matter is left to the goodwill of each police chief and his ability to understand the problem. This creates discontinuity in any attempt to implement a steady line of work.
MARTIN LUTHER KING. Padre 'Chiqui' went ahead and got involved with the leader of the most violent and most feared gang of El Agustino, Los Picheiros, who had just come out of Lurigancho prison and wanted to go straight and help change others.
The relationship with the gang leader came via Alianza Lima. Gangs are intertwined with the soccer hooligans and Los Picheiros were part of the Alianza fans. 'Chiqui' was chaplain of the club at that time.
About 200 gang members from various groups gathered in the parish church, and Sully [Sullivan], the leader, "talked about Martin Luther King, the [Nobel] peace prize and his fight for his black brothers using nonviolent methods and expectations of leaving the world of violence, living better, having an honorable job, changing their lives, being able to walk the streets without fear." (Padre Chiqui, Asociación Martin Luther King: Una experiencia de trabajo con las pandillas de El Agustino, Ciudad Nuestra).
LINES OF WORK. 'Chiqui' understood that he had to take advantage of the positive aspects of the gang and use them to reverse the negative ones. Gangs are organized, they have solidarity and leadership, which began to be used for different purposes.
'Chiqui' and his collaborators engaged in four lines of work:
- First, training and education. With the help of volunteer teachers and institutions like Fe y Alegría he included the young people, many of whom had dropped out of school, in primary and secondary programs.
- Second, jobs. The Asociación Martin Luther King (MLK) signed an agreement with the municipality of El Agustino to provide work for young people. A couple of microenterprises were set up.
And he obtained the invaluable support of an employer -- one of the largest -- who went with his wife every Saturday for six hours to prepare a group of young people to enter the world of work. They also opened the door to their business to several of them.
- Third, sports -- always important to young people. They formed a sports club with coaches who not only handled the physical and technical aspects, but also the training of the young people and children.
- Finally, they committed to making repairs to the community for the damage they had caused. It is important that the former gang members acknowledge and take responsibility for the havoc they caused, and, at the same time, for the community to welcome them again.
To this end, they engage in public cleanup work, participate in celebrations of Christmas or Mother's Day by bringing gifts to the people who were affected by their acts, and so on.
SÍ SE PUEDE. Some young people are recidivists and go back to the streets and violence. Others cannot get rid of their addiction to drugs. 'Chiqui' estimates that 95% of gang members use drugs and, worse, hard drugs -- highly addictive and extremely destructive ones such as cocaine base paste, which has replaced marijuana.
However, many have recovered. (See the interview with 'Chiqui' in Justicia Para Crecer, No. 11, "Lo Mas gratificante es ver a los muchachos encontrar un nuevo horizonte").
The problem of youth gangs is explained mainly by families that have fallen apart in an environment of poverty and lack of opportunities. The school usually does not help young people to integrate and adapt. What welcomes them is the gang.
Society has to find ways to integrate and give recognition to these young people. Experiences such as Padre Chiqui's show that it is possible. As he says, "a timely and adequate response means saving a huge contingent of young people for the productive and social life of the country."
Additional items of interest:
- Cuando el mejor ataque es la defensa: Martin Luther King en El Agustino, por Sebastián Santiago, Ideele, no.168, marzo 2005
- Ciudad Nuestra: Entrevista al Padre Chiqui (video, 2008 -- interview in Spanish focuses mostly on Padre Chiqui's work with youth gangs)