El Salvador: What Makes Gang Members Defect?

By José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen*

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador.

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador./ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

In El Salvador, gang members do not quit their gangs and stop their criminal behavior in a single, clear-cut event, but rather through a process of interaction with a viable alternative, particularly religious groups. The gangs exert control over their members through a combination of benefits – such as employment, an identity, and security – and coercion and fear of the consequences of disloyalty. The gangs exert overwhelming influence over the social environment and regulate members’ lives and peer relationships on the street and in the prisons, where government policies enable them to have near-total control of individuals. Escaping that control is a difficult and dangerous process.

  • Our research, including a 112-question survey of nearly 1,200 active and former gang members in El Salvador and 24 in-depth interviews, shows that a number of factors fuel members’ desire to defect, but that exiting a gang first requires a cognitive shift that anticipates a life outside the group. The disengagement process starts with first doubts, including a critical assessment of one’s current actions, and is followed by “ anticipatory socialization” – an examination and gradual embrace of a new role. Specific experiences and activities help shape the new identity, and the process culminates in a post-exit validation.

Our surveys reveal that members grow more disillusioned with the gangs the longer they are in them. In interviews, they speak of traumatic events, such as armed threats against their families, as increasing their desire to leave – as well as their fear of the consequences of defection. Certain important life events can also influence gang members’ calculus but, according to our survey and interviews, are of secondary importance. Marriage, the reestablishment of significant relationships, parenthood, and employment are catalysts for reducing criminal behavior, but they are not themselves decisive. Age is also a factor, with adolescence being the period in which social embeddedness can be deepest, but longevity can weaken it.

  • Religious affiliation emerged as the single strongest predictor of members’ disengagement intentions. Our research confirmed that most active members who express the intention to defect are Evangelical Christians. Those individuals are two times more likely to consider leaving the gang than those without religious affiliation. Importantly, religious participation enables them to see others who have effectively and safely separated from gangs, making potential defectors three times more likely to harbor such intentions.
  • Evangelicalism seems to be the only kind of disengagement approved by the gangs. Indeed, a gang member who defected when he was 25 years old told us, “The only way that you can leave is through the Church.” Another said, “If you are a true Christian, [the gang leaders] do not harm you. But if you become a Christian just for the sake of leaving the gang, they order to kill you or beat you up.”

Life events that in other countries serve as “hooks for change” – incidents that prompt members to defect – do not appear to be as relevant in the initial stages of disengagement in El Salvador. Drivers that other studies show to be key, such as finding a job, establishing a stable relationship, or having a child, have less impact in El Salvador apparently because of the gangs’ pervasive influence in people’s daily lives – influence difficult to escape. These events do not necessarily occur outside the reach of the gangs, which often control the environment under which deserters have to survive. In addition, time in prison, which in many contexts increases members’ desire to quit, does not stimulate defections because the gangs’ near-total control over Salvadoran prisons makes defection there nearly impossible.

  • With Evangelical Pentecostalism providing the most viable – and the only gang-tolerated – way out, government and non-governmental organizations seeking to encourage defections may be tempted to promote the churches and fund their outreach to gang members. Our research suggests, however, that the crucial point might not only be the religious orientation of churches, but their ability to share the social spaces that the gang inhabits. To the extent that other NGOs can also access those spaces and being accepted by the community, they may give gang members some additional opportunities for disengagement – subject of our ongoing research.
  • Identity-based theory attributes the defectors’ actions to the emotional experience of guilt and conversion, but the differential associations – particularly meeting other successful defectors – provided by affiliation with the religious groups turn out to be significantly more important. Gang members yearn for the alternative social support systems that family, employment, and new neighbors – and government programs – cannot provide.

July 27, 2020

* José Miguel Cruz is Professor and Director of Research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, and Jonathan D. Rosen is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University. Their full article is Mara Forever? Factors associated with gang disengagement in El Salvador.

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