A recent study of El Salvador's gang phenomenon has shown that, while it is possible for gang members to abandon these groups, desistance depends on several factors, including the gangs' own acquiescence.
A study carried out by Florida International University, shows that desistance from gangs in El Salvador is possible and takes place more often than it is usually believed.
In the short term, however, the report states that gang members' successful exit depends on their commitment to leaving the criminal structure, and crucially, on the consent of the gang leaders themselves. The study concludes that abandoning a gang is a delicate and gradual process that must be constantly negotiated with the group one chooses to leave.
The study was based on a survey of 1,196 respondents and 32 in-depth interviews. Almost half of the interviewees belonged, or had belonged, to the MS13 gang, and a smaller percentage were affiliated with the Barrio 18 Sureños, the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and other gangs.
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The finding that gang desistance is possible and happens more often than is usually believed helps to debunk the belief that Salvadoran gangs are watertight groups, and no options are left for their members once they choose to join up.
Aspiring deserters undergo a long and gradual separation, first reducing their participation in gang activities and eventually devoting more time to religious activities and their families, according to the report. Nonetheless, the study also indicates that 58 percent of former gang members received threats for abandoning the gangs, and that the lack of job opportunities is one of the greatest challenges that Salvadorans face in attempting to leave organized crime groups.
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Most interviewed gang members had dropped out of school before completing their primary eduation, which appears to confirm the gangs' tendency to recruit, at times even forcibly, under-educated minors, as they seem to attract less attention from authorities and are not punished as severely as adults if caught.
At the same time, the report stresses the importance of religious communities, as they provide a vital space for deserters to strengthen their ties with society and look for new opportunities away from the gangs' threats. The importance of religion for Salvadoran gang members is well known, and the church has taken credit for brokering past truces between organized crime groups.
But the recent study also highlights that gangs often police the moral life of their former members. Thus, showing an absolute commitment to one's faith and behaving in accordance with the values of a pious life is considered mandatory for all aspiring deserters.
Read the full report below: