They say you can never really leave the gang. But that's not always true. Although he almost died trying, Manuel* got out, and now he's trying to help others in his community do the same.
Manuel joined one of El Salvador's notorious gangs at the age of 14, figuring he'd be a member for life. It was easy money for a kid with no parents. And for once, he could dish out the beatings instead of take them.
But after spending a year in jail, he quit the gang. The decision changed his life in the best—and worst—possible ways.
Nearly 3 years later, he's gone from being a menace to a leader.
"I've realized I want a real home and to do that, I need to change my way of thinking," Manuel says. "I want to be a good example so what happened to me doesn't happen again."
Through a six-month program that builds the life and vocational skills young people need to find a job or start a business, CRS is trying to make sure what happened to Manuel doesn't happen to others.
The model, first used in Harlem, New York, teaches conflict resolution, leadership and communication skills, and trains participants to repair computers or work in customer service. It also provides enterprise development training, seed capital and mentors for those who want to start a small business. Many students have found jobs through the program's broad network of Salvadoran partner businesses, which include clothing stores, beauty salons, restaurants and bakeries.
Gang brutality takes toll
For Manuel, now 30, leaving the gang was the hardest part. It killed his brother, a pastor in Guatemala, and it nearly killed him.
A few months after Manuel quit the gang, he found himself on a deserted farm outside of San Salvador with people he thought were his friends. It was a gang tribunal.
The tribunal heard 10 cases that day, including his brother's. Gang bosses determined the punishments from prison. Manuel was the only one who made it out alive, but only after a severe beating.
The executions made the news. The following days were torture for Manuel, as gang members harassed him and accused him of collaborating with the police. He stayed inside for months after the trauma, paralyzed by the guilt and loss he felt over his brother's death.
"All I could think about for the longest time was what happened to my brother and how it was my fault," he says.
Violence drives migration
El Salvador is arguably one of the world's most violent countries. Violence has grown in the last decade as street gangs, many tied to the United States, expand their influence.
Meanwhile, nearly half the population is under 18; most only make it to the 5th grade. With many young people out of school and out of work, the likelihood of violence will continue to increase.
That same violence is also pushing young people, already discouraged by a lack of opportunity, to immigrate in record numbers. A 2013 report by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found that fear, rather than poverty, is the primary reason children are migrating to the United States.
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