GUATEMALA CITY – Five years ago, the majority of Guatemalan youths could join groups only through churches or gangs, according to break dancers.
But today, there are about 15,000 young people, known as “b-boys,” involved in the break dance movement, according to Trasciende, an NGO that teaches break dancing and promotes individual and group skills.
The areas with the highest levels of violence are the same places where break dancing has become the most popular, as gang leaders don’t see it as competition.
“The b-boy has emerged in places where youths run the greatest risk of joining gangs, since these are red zones (districts with high rates of violence),” Trasciende Director David Martínez said. “We are the alternative to joining a gang, but without committing crimes or causing violence.”
Since Trasciende began promoting break dancing in Guatemala in 2009, about 15 youths have given up their gang affiliations, Martínez said. As a result, the NGO moved its headquarters to downtown Guatemala City, an area that isn’t controlled by either of the two gangs that operate in the country – Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18).
“If we can save one kid from joining a gang, that alone is a success,” Martínez said. “In five years, we have convinced several young men not to join when they were very close to becoming gang members.”
Trasciende organizes events to select the best dancers who represent Guatemala in international competitions.
Lester Rivas, who lives in Zone 18, one of Guatemala City’s most violent districts, has been break dancing for three years. Along with three neighborhood friends, he founded the group Crazy Boys.
With his ‟crew” – as break dance groups are also called – Rivas participates in the dance competitions organized by Trasciende. But he laments the loss of one of his friends who succumbed to pressure and joined the M-18 gang.
“He was a very good b-boy, but we weren’t able to stop him,” Rivas added.
Gerardo Ramírez, 21, who teaches break dancing, said 70% of b-boys have links to gangs.
“Even I had dealings with a gang,” he said. “I never joined, but I did keep watch for them and other simple things that they would ask me to do, though I was only a friend of theirs.”
Youths associated with gangs can be recognized by the way they walk and talk, Ramírez added.
“At every large event [organized by Transciende], about 50 of the youths who attend come not because they like break dancing, but because they’re gang members and are keeping an eye on things,” Martínez said. “We use bright colors and they use different color combinations, though they dress similarly.”
However, Ramírez, Martínez and Rivas agree society stigmatizes those who participate in break dancing as gang members, including those who don’t belong to any criminal groups.
Ramírez also is part of the Christian organization Youth With a Mission, where he teaches young people to develop their skills in break dancing, being human statues, singing and rapping.
“I used to be a b-boy because I liked it, but now I do it for God and because I like it,” Ramírez said.
A common element among young b-boys who join gangs is that they tend to come from broken homes, according to Youth With a Mission Director Carlos García. However, even b-boys with ties to different gangs don’t fight within the movement.
“The dance unites them,” he said. “We have youths in the ministry from various red zones and different gangs, but within break dance they dance and joke around. We have seen them stop taking drugs and leave gangs. They spread the word among themselves.”
But in the country’s so-called red zones, children and adolescents remain at risk. Youths are pressured to join gangs, and when faced with limited educational and job opportunities, many end up becoming criminals, social movement activists said.
From January to December 2012, 734 adolescents were sent to correctional institutions. As of July 15 this year, the number reached 1,001, according to the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS). Of these minors, 24% committed homicide, while 17% were convicted of extortion and 15% were found guilty of sexual assault.
The lack of education and employment opportunities makes them more likely to commit crimes, according to Alejandra Contreras, a researcher for the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).
About 80,000 fewer students enrolled in the first year of primary school in 2013 compared to 2012, according to the Ministry of Education. Additionally, only 30% of the economically active population have formal jobs, 3% are unemployed and the rest operate within the gray economy, according to the Labor Ministry.
Another initiative that provides training and educational opportunities for children and adolescents, including in red zones, is the Young Protagonists program coordinated by the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) in 15 of the country’s 22 departments.
Since 2012, 22,537 children and adolescents have joined the program, which offers 13 workshops in public schools every weekend. In addition to break dancing, the activities include workshops in crafts, cosmetology, music, computing and English and Mayan languages, as well as chess, karate, table tennis and other sports.
“What they need are safe places to practice break dancing and that’s what we provide for them in schools on weekends,” Young Protagonists Director Gabriela Márquez said. “Even in red zones, this program has been a success for us.”