LA JOLLA – Over the past three decades, Central America has experienced an increase in violence and crime, which has largely been attributed to the emergence and proliferation of youth gangs.  Policy makers throughout the region are struggling to find the right mix of suppressive and preventative policies to confront the gang problem.

To respond to these concerns, the Institute of the Americas convened high-ranking law enforcement officials, state prosecutors, anti-narcotics agency representatives and leaders of community-based organizations working with at-risk youths in several Latin American countries  for a five-day professional workshop at its La Jolla, Ca., campus.  The workshop, organized and directed by the Institute of the Americas and titled “Gangs, Youths and Demand Reduction,” focused on five thematic areas related to this regional public security issue.

The areas of discussion included community policing strategies and the role that the education system can play; the prevalence of substance abuse as it relates to gang activity and public health responses to the problem; and alternatives for at-risk youths such as employment, arts and culture programs, religion and sports.


U.S. expert speakers working on both suppression and prevention policies, as well as specialists in substance abuse, met with workshop participants to discuss alternatives and approaches to the spread of gang activity.  Participants and speakers agreed that a comprehensive, regional approach to gangs is necessary to prevent further escalation of the problem.

Steven Vigil, a conflict mitigation specialist who served as the co-chair of the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador, told participants that efforts to address the gang problem are failing because “this is a transnational problem that is being dealt with on a local level. You have local law enforcement that are trying to deal with a problem that is bigger than them. Law enforcement needs to be done in conjunction with other programs. Suppression puts too much pressure on law enforcement to solve the problem.”

Panama National Police officials (l-r) Luis Ortiz, Raymundo Barroso and Samuel Nieto outside Panama’s presidential palace after a meeting on gang suppression with President Juan Carlos Varela. Photo courtesy of Raymundo Barroso

Four top-ranking Panamanian police officials who attended the workshop met with Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela  immediately after returning to discuss implementing anti-gang measures based on models they studied during seminars  at the Institute of the Americas and during field visits to programs such as Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.

Raymundo Barroso, deputy police commissioner of a Community Crime Prevention Unit of the National Police of Panama, attended the workshop and subsequently met with President Varela along with Panama National Police Major Samuel Nieto; Luis Ortiz, also deputy police commissioner of a Community Crime Prevention Unit; and Ayda Villarreal, Chief of Police of the Children and Adolescents Division.

“During the meeting with President Varela, I was commenting about the experiences we had in San Diego and Los Angeles,” Barroso said in an interview from Panama. “ I spoke to him specifically about Homeboy Industries. There is a program that we have here  in Panama that is similar but it seems to me that Homeboy is much better and that is the part that we need to study more closely.”

During the workshop, the participants heard in-depth presentations about alcohol and drug abuse and the role that substance abuse plays in encouraging and supporting gang activity.

Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington D.C., detailed the irreversible damage caused by alcoholism and drug abuse.  Dr. Carmen Pulido, adjunct professor in the University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychology, spoke about best practices to respond to substance abuse in children.

The program incorporated field visits with in-depth sessions with specialists in the areas of gang prevention and programs to assist youths who seek to abandon gang life.

At Homeboy Industries, participants met with former gang members who spoke about their reasons for joining gangs, as well as learning about the organization’s jobs program for former gang members. The participants also met with the founders of Southern California Crossroads, an organization that works with gang members in the violence-plagued city of Compton, south of Los Angeles, as well as the neighborhoods of Watts and South Central Los Angeles.

“People are getting killed every day in Los Angeles. The homicide rate has gone up,” said Paul Anthony Carrillo, director of Southern California Crossroads, who has trained more than 500 gang intervention workers over the past six years.

Dr. Michael Jiménez, a surgeon at St. Francis Medical Center, said the hospital handles an average of 2,200 trauma cases a year.  The hospital treats more penetrating wounds – bullet wounds or knife wounds – than any other hospital in Los Angeles.  Some 38 percent of the trauma cases at St. Francis are penetrating wounds. Dr. Jiménez works with Carrillo and Southern California Crossroads to persuade injured gang members to leave gang life. “When they’re in the hospital, it’s a teachable moment because they are vulnerable,” he said.

San Diego, participants made a half-day field visit to the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility where officials explained the protocols for responding to potential gang activity in the facility. And at the San Diego County Office of Education, Student Support Coordinator Anthony Ceja engaged participants in mentoring exercises to more fully understand why youths join gangs, the signs of gang involvement and steps that parents can take to guide their children away from gang activity.

“If you have children, listen to them but don’t judge,” said Shanell Rodriguez, a former gang member who now works with Ceja’s Project AWARE program. “If they have one person in their corner who sees something good in them, then they are going to make it.”

Arcela Nuñez-Álvarez, right, founded Homie Up, a San Diego-based non-profit organization, and established a Popular University to educate Latino youths and their family members about their roots and their culture. Photo by S. Lynne Walkern

Arcela Nuñez-Álvarez founded Homie UP, a San Diego-based non-profit organization, and established a Popular University to educate Latino youths and their family members – not only in the basic academic courses but also about their roots and their culture. “We give them a positive sense of who they are,” she said.

At Writerz Blok in southeast San Diego, co-founder Sergio González talked about a program to encourage graffiti as a modern art form – on T shirts and the walls of the organization’s property instead of on the streets where taggers can be arrested. Writerz Blok offers modern art classes and a free summer camp to channel criminal tagging into marketable art.

“We are never going to end the gangs,´ said González, whose non-profit organization has received numerous awards and recognitions from the City of San Diego. “But what we can do is help those who might go into gangs change their path in life.”