Fighting Gangs with Reality TV

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By Marcela Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006; 3:52 PM

MEXICO CITY -- As reality shows go, Guatemala's "Desafio 10" would seem destined to be a flop: 10 strangers live in a house for two weeks where they study basic accounting, marketing and customer service. Cameras roll, the young men become friends, some go into business together.

Pretty boring stuff until you realize the 10 participants are former members of some of the most infamous gangs in the Americas -- Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street, White Fence and North Hollywood. These are the guys that "everybody wants dead or in jail," said Harold Sibaja, the show's creator.

Youth gangs represent the greatest threat to stability in Central America since civil wars devastated the region more than a decade ago. They have also become a law enforcement challenge in the United States. Gang members are linked to drug trafficking and thousands of gruesome murders from Tegucigalpa to the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

In the United States, local and state governments are adopting zero-tolerance laws to punish and incarcerate gang members. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security launched a campaign against illegal immigrants suspected of being gang members, opting to deport them immediately rather than taking them to U.S. criminal courts.

Central American governments too have adopted a mano dura (strong hand), arresting youths even if only under suspicion of belonging to a gang. Soon the governments of Guatemala and Honduras will add thousands of military personnel to their police forces to quash gang violence. Meanwhile, some citizens have taken the law into their own hands and, as has been happening in Guatemala City, target and kill gang members.

Business owners are some of those hardest hit by gang activity. They are often victims of extortion, paying a "tax" in exchange for being left alone. Most Guatemalan business owners have retaliated by pledging not to hire anyone with ties to gangs. For former members, who still bare the indelible tattoos of membership, employment prospects are almost nonexistent.

Scheduled to air in March, "Desafio 10" (Challenge 10) should already be considered significant just for bringing very disparate elements together. The U.S. Agency for International Development helped put the rival gang members under one roof with a grant for $15,000 to Creative Associates International. Guatemala's private sector invested more than $50,000 in cash, equipment and time.

Carlos Zuniga, Guatemalan business leader and mentor to five of the 10, was once convinced, as most Guatemalans are, that the gang problem can only be solved by law enforcement. Through his participation in the show, however, he came to believe that most of the gang members are in fact victims of poverty, abuse and abandonment, and that Guatemalan businessmen can no longer afford to be seen as "soulless with no social conscience."

In a telephone interview from Guatemala City, Zuniga said that "this is a national issue about young men that could be my kids."

Zuniga's new "kids" include Marcos "California" Perez, 26, and Estuardo "El Seco" Valle, 22. Perez, who joined the North Hollywood gang of Los Angeles at age 11, landed in Guatemala at 25 when U.S. authorities deported him after serving nearly three years in prison for selling drugs. Valle, also 11 when he joined Mara Salvatrucha, twice tried to escape gang life by fleeing to the United States.

They and the other participants have gone through a transformation of their own. Valle was struck by how people around him were willing to help him learn: "It was something I couldn't believe. Society used to discriminate against us but now that so many have seen that we are willing to make an effort ... many people are supporting us."

During the taping, the 10 participants were divided into two groups, each given the task of starting a small business. One group opened a shoeshine and shoe repair shop that has began seeing some success, thanks to its prime location in one of the largest office buildings in Guatemala City. The other group, Zuniga's, chose to start a car wash. While the car wash business has been slower, both Zuniga and Sibaja are convinced that will quickly change once the show airs.

Initially all participants wore masks to hide their identities during the taping. But as the days went on all but two took them off. Perez, who was one of the last to remove his mask, said it was fear that kept him wearing it longer. But suddenly he said he got sick of the mask as he realized that "I don't need to be hiding, I am not a criminal no more."

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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