Because gangs are a symptom of complex community problems, quick, simplistic approaches don’t work, and repression by police has been shown to make gangs more organized and violent over time. In other words: there is no silver bullet and putting gang members in jail simply compounds the problem.
But even though repression has proven to be counter-productive, it is the tool of choice in Panama and most of Latin America.
The public asks for it: surveys say that over 70% of Panamanians think “mano dura” (hard hand) solutions are the answer. “Street violence is a police problem,” they say.
But here’s our secret weapon: Casco Viejo is a community that believes differently. The Esperanza movement was first sparked by a simple question, “If we don’t tackle the gang problem in our community, who will?”
Simply allowing the problem to be exported to another community through gentrification was not an option for us. Though gang members and young men on the periphery of gangs occupy the outermost margins of society, they are still part of our community, and therefore part of our mandate.
Esperanza’s goal is to make our community safer and more resilient by demobilizing street gangs and integrating their members into formal society and their territories into the broader community.
Our goals are founded heavily in hard results and permanence (that the impact on the community will last). Without either of these two elements, our efforts are not scalable.
Often times we get the question, “But how long will this whole process take?” and for that we use a tiered approach designed to reverse the vicious cycle into a positive one:
As you can see, we believe we can change our neighborhood concretely and permanently in 5 years time. Currently [October 16, 2015] we are 2 years into this mission:
In technical terms, Esperanza is a gang intervention and reintegration program, which means that it intervenes in active gangs with the intention of demobilizing them by integrating their members from the margins of society into the mainstream, where the natural human tendency to behave according to society’s expectations can positively effect their behavior.
One way to think about it is that Esperanza helps young men whose only contacts to formal society are through the police and the occasional politician…to earn a stake in their society, learn its norms and see that their success is tied to its success.
The theory is that once they’ve earned this social capital (a metric we use that indicates acceptance by the greater community) our graduates will be reluctant to lose that social capital because they won’t want to be cast back into the margins. Further, that same social capital is also the key to gaining financial capital ultimately needed to help themselves and their dependents out of the cycle of poverty.
To make this transformation happen, Esperanza’s full-time team of social technicians takes a “holistic” approach, meaning that we are as interested in the root cause of becoming a gang member (social disorganization on the streets where they live) as we are in the symptoms that manifest themselves as gang mobilization and anti-social behavior.
We take this holistic approach because it simply isn’t effective to continuously treat individuals coming out of gangs while the machine that creates the condition continues to churn out more members. We want to help individuals, but we also need to make our streets safer.
Esperanza focuses a lot on geography, attempting to systematically stabilize one former gang territory at a time.
Once one area is stabilized, it becomes what we call a “Zona de Paz” or “Zone of Peace.”
We then move on to the next area, with the goal of merging them all together until the community is whole again.
We would not be doing our supporters or our neighbors any good if we couldn’t show that our efforts are working. So we take measuring success very seriously. And we measure it on the same three levels where we act: individual, group and community.
At an individual level, social integration requires the establishment of ties between the individual and society. This level of connection can be tracked by looking at factors such as:
We test these individual growth factors periodically to verify whether the individual is moving closer to or further from society.
At a group level, integration means that the group has demobilized itself. To do so, the members (and especially its leaders) must:
Why? Because members are often family with many interdependent relationships in their community (the same units we all search for as humans). Instead, Esperanza focuses on helping the groups reorient to pro-social activities such as improving the conditions of their streets, starting micro businesses and helping their neighbors. Esperanza does not intervene unless the leadership invites us and demonstrates a willingness to change course (this is actually easier than it sounds).
These formal renouncements, combined with empirical evidence of crime statistics and legal sustenance of members, help to form a basis for petitioning the Ministerio de Seguridad to remove the former gangs from the national gang register.
One thing we have learned is that integration is a two-way street: the community embracing the participants’ change is almost as important as the change itself…
On a community level, integration means making the change visible, tangible and beneficial to the widest swath of the community as possible. We do this through:
If you want to see all this in action, just browse Esperanza’s Facebook page and see the active role that Esperanza San Felipe members play in the process.
The result of integration at this community level has increased legal income opportunities for participants and their families, and increased delivery of social services by other organizations.
All of these components serve to both address root causes of gang mobilization, to reduce recidivism (an increasingly expensive problem to the state), and to erode negative perceptions of the former territories (and by extension the participants) in the eye of the broader community.
Esperanza is not any one individual or team of experts or graduating young men. Esperanza is a much broader movement that leverages Casco Viejo’s uniquely mixed and participatory community to draw as many people as possible into the process: allowing people from all walks of life to identify their own struggles and to share with one another experience on how holistic solutions can change lives.
As we progress, we will continue to measure whether the broader community and the police see a change in the group’s behavior, and whether they feel that the former territory has become safer.