MANAGUA, Nicaragua – At 14, Samir Matamoros founded the Nicaraguan gang Red MS (Mara Salvatrucha), leading him to control 130 minors in various neighborhoods in Managua.
Today, seven years later, his history of murder, rape and other crimes embarrasses him.
Matamoros was born into poverty. When he was 12, he joined his brothers on the street, where they begged for money so they could eat. He’s been to prison 28 times for aggravated robbery.
However, with the help of the NGO Center for the Prevention of Violence (CEPREV), Matamoros left the gang and reintegrated into society.
“I want to be different, find a job and take care of my family,” he said.
Though Matamoros’ story is the same as many youths’ in Nicaragua, gangs have not evolved into major organized crime groups for drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and other crimes, as happened in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
This is attributed to CEPREV, according to Mónica Zalaquet, the center’s director.
Since 1997, CEPREV has been working on prevention, rehabilitation and social reintegration with at-risk youths and gang members with criminal records.
Like the gang founded by Matamoros, another 99 gangs are spread through 36 of Managua’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. According to CEPREV, dismantling these groups should be a priority to protect public safety.
“The police have played an important role by intervening in the community with a social model that is neither invasive nor repressive,” Zalaquet said. “They are devoted to service, which allows them to speak and be heard by the population.”
More than 19,500 youths have left gangs with the help of CEPREV, which offers motivational talks on values, personal growth and life experiences. These meetings are opportunities for former gang members to express themselves and feel part of the community.
The program provides on-going support for participants, Zalaquet said.
“I got into gangs when I was 15 because of the violence experienced at home – my dad is an alcoholic and abused my mother,” said Gerald Gómez, a 20-year-old former gang leader.
Gómez sought help from the center after spending three years in the world of drugs and crime, where he was stabbed and shot several times and was incarcerated for three months in the Managua Penitentiary.
Today, he participates in group counselling at the center, receives therapy to rebuild his self-esteem and attends behavior modification workshops on masculinity, machismo and violence. He receives specialized care for drug and alcohol rehabilitation and has returned to high school to complete his studies.
Education and employment
The High Counsel on Private Enterprise (COSEP) states that only one in three young people can find work in Nicaragua. Of 1.7 million working-age youth, 64.5 % are unemployed, according to the 2011 Report of the Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN).
“These young people need more alternatives,” Zalaquet said. “We have done a lot as an organization. There are no [organized criminal] maras in Nicaragua, but there are groups of youths who form gangs as a sort of rebellion against domestic violence at home. By listening to their needs for employment and education, we assist and re-educate them. We influence the dismantling of these groups.”
At CEPREV, youths receive psychological therapy through group, family and individual sessions, in addition to participating in recreational activities and forums, where they share their experiences. Their families also are part of the therapy, which often is successful in changing patterns of violence.
“We do not want violence in Nicaragua or in Latin America,” Matamoros said. “All youths, regardless of the country, are equal. We have to work hard, but it’s important the general public understands we need opportunities to develop our skills.”
CEPREV’s success is due in large part to Matamoros and Gómez’s work as peer counsellors. They promote peace by sharing their stories with other at-risk youths, proving it’s possible to leave crime behind. Currently, both are looking for jobs.
The CEPREV model engages all sectors of society, combining the work of making peace among gangs with measures that promote community organization.
The program involves and integrates civil society, teachers, government officials, the National Police, journalists and churches in its work to influence regional and national public policies on employment and educational integration of these youths, Zalaquet said.
CEPREV also has given seminars to the National Police on the challenges faced by youths from economically vulnerable areas, sensitizing the institution and making them understand youth violence in Nicaragua, Zalaquet added.
Since 2011, the center has shared its knowledge with organizations in El Salvador such as New Life Foundation, Foundation Siglo XXIII, Comunidades de Fe y Vida, Young Christians Association, Inform-UES, Grupo Opera, Grupo Nahual, FESPAD, and Tutela Legal del Arzobispado.
CEPREV’s methodology also will be replicated in Honduras and Guatemala through training at various partner organizations such as the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH), the Association for Crime Prevention (APREDE), the Ceiba Group, Honduran Youth Advance Forward Together (JHA-JA), and Casa Alianza Honduras.