TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Leaving a gang is a complex process, but it is not impossible – just ask Isaac Dubón.
“When I was 9 years old, I began hanging out with members of the Mara Salvatrucha. By the time I was 11, I was a member,” said Dubón, 28. “You have to do everything they ask you to do in a gang, you live for the gang.”
Dubón said growing up in a gang was traumatic.
“What I can tell you is that my life was destroyed,” he said. “I lived submerged in an environment of drugs, violence and death. They were looking to kill me.”
He said there had to be more to life than being in a gang.
“My life went on amid [flying] bullets,” he said. “I wanted to leave [the gang] on my own, but I couldn’t. When I was 18, God sent some people to take me to the Proyecto Victoria, where I started rehabilitation 10 years ago [toward the end of 2000]. I was in rehab for eight months, but I went back to San Pedro [Sula] and got back into drugs. However, a few weeks later I decided to go back because I wanted a new life.”
Dubón is from a broken family. He was born in San Pedro Sula, 244 kilometers (151 miles) north of the capital and the third-most violent city in the world, according to the 2010 ranking by the Citizen Council on Public Safety and Penal Justice, headquartered in Mexico.
34 years rescuing children
The Proyecto Victoria is located in the village of Cepate, in the community of Cofradía, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the nation’s capital of Tegucigalpa, on the old highway that goes to the department of Olancho. It was founded in 1977 by Cuban-American pastor Mario Fumero.
Rosa Amalia Aguilera, director of Proyecto Victoria, said “entry into the program is voluntary and the process takes from six months to a year. We attend to 100 people in this locale and 50 in San Pedro Sula.”
Aguilera said the families of the youths enrolled in the program pay $81 lempiras (US$4.20) per day for food, “but not everyone can afford to do so, because they are low-income. The ideal budget to work with is $250,000 lempiras (US$13,235) per month. Currently, we run on a deficit because we get $200,000 (US$10,587) per month.”
The Honduran government allocates $40,000 lempiras (US$2,118) to the institution monthly. The rest of the funding comes from donations by churches and individuals who benefitted from the program.
Financial constraints have hindered the organization, which is committed to keeping its doors open to those in need.
“Pastor Fumero had considered the idea [of closing], but when he saw the ripple effect, he realized it had to go on no matter what,” Aguilera said.
And the results show Fumero was right.
Melvin Flores, coordinator of the Proyecto Victoria Prevention program, said “we have one of the highest rehabilitation rates in Latin America: 45% of those who enter the program are reintegrated into society.”
Flores added the participants learn work skills by participating in classes that teach carpentry, computer skills, welding, baking and silk screening.
“The therapy we offer has three phases: detoxification, weaning [off drugs] and social reintegration,” he said.
Dubón said the program works.
“Reintegration is just the beginning because we come from a different world,” he said. “But when we want to be included in society, we discover that the system is different because we are stigmatized for having belonged to a gang. That is when the desire to show yourself you can be someone new starts.”
Violence and drugs divide Honduran society
Dubón said the public stereotypes former gang members.
“Society is hurt,” he said. “The system has been damaged by the violence brought on by the gangs. Parents who lose their children, children who lose their parents, husbands who lose their wives… all these deaths are because of the gangs.”
He has worked for the past nine years as an educator and social coach for the Child Prevention Program at the Instituto Hondureño de la Niñéz y la Familia (IHNFA – Honduran Institute for Children and Families).
“[IHNFA Director] María Suyapa Núñez and I visit jails and marginalized neighborhoods to work on gang and drug addiction prevention,” Dubón said. “In addition, the institution attends to 7,000 children.”
More than 500,000 children nationwide, including 10,000 living in Tegucigalpa, are at risk of joining a gang, according to IHNFA.
There are 3.954 million between the ages of 1 and 19 in Honduras, which represents about 49.1% of the nation’s 8.045 million residents, according to the country’s National Statistics Institute.
Maj. Ramón Martínez Hernández, head of the Community Police Department, said “by 2000, we counted approximately 412 anti-social groups and 36,000 gang members” but added that his organization hasn’t been able to update its data.
The department’s Gang Prevention Unit, established in 1999, has taught 1,913 children and adolescents nationwide about the perils of gang life and using narcotics.
“We don’t have a federal budget, therefore our task is carried out through workshops and training in schools, as well as by permanent patrolling based on reports from the areas with the highest number of incidents, which are Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula,” Martínez Hernández said.