Pedro and the 18th Street Gang*

RENEW International

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At-risk youth in a RENEW recreation activity, photo courtesy of Irma Chávez and RENEW
Gang members in reflection at a RENEW gathering, photo courtesy of Irma Chávez and RENEW

By Julie Rattey


*Based on a story of a young man in El Salvador. Most names have been changed for privacy. Information for this story was provided by Irma Chávez, former director of RENEW International in El Salvador.

The hot sun beat down on his back as Pedro, 24, rode his bike, hitting the streets in his hometown in El Salvador looking for a job. He smiled to himself as he turned down a side street. Despite everything — dropping out of school at 13, his time in the gang, jail — he had finished high school and gone on to study nursing. Now all he needed was a full-time job.


Pedro’s reverie was rudely broken by the sudden, clearly calculated appearance of three tattooed figures from around a corner. Pedro barely had time to recognize them as members of the Mara gang before he saw the glint of a raised handgun. He held up a hand, his only protection.


BANG! BANG!


He felt the first two shots hit his hand.


BANG! BANG! BANG!

 

Pain exploded in his chest, his leg. He fell from the bike onto the concrete.

 

So this is how it ends… he thought. And I thought I could escape….


***

 

Years before, at age 15, Pedro found himself facing off against rival gang member Yonatan, suppressing the urge to reach for his knife. Yonatan already clutched one, and wore an expression of excitement and hatred Pedro recognized as a possible preamble to a fight. Pedro didn’t dare move. The dingy alleyway in which he and his fellow 18th Street gang members faced their Mara rivals seemed to close in as heated words were exchanged. Would it end in a few black eyes and bruised egos? Or would someone die today?

 

Sometimes, in moments like this, Pedro wished he were safely back in school, which he had abandoned (against his aunt’s wishes) at 13 to join the gang. But it was also exciting to be scared. Besides, he was with his street brothers. The days of swaggering around the streets, joking in the park, committing petty crime, and skirmishing with other gangs had knotted fierce bonds between them. This was his family.

 

Still, Pedro liked to keep brushes with death to a minimum. His fingers twitched near his pocket. He hoped he wouldn’t need his knife today.

 

But the confrontation escalated, and Yonatan, apparently unable to contain himself, uttered a swearing insult and lunged at Pedro with his knife. Pedro pulled out his own to defend himself.


“Back off, man!” he said in Spanish, evading the blade.


His opponent lunged again. It was kill or be killed now. Amid the shouts of the gang around them, some of whom were involved in their own battles, Pedro felt his blade collide with flesh. Yonatan gasped and clutched at his stomach as blood bloomed from his shirt. Pedro stared. Oh, God! he thought. Have I just killed a man?

 

***

 

Pedro was lucky. Yonatan survived, and the judge ruled that Pedro had acted in self-defense, so his only jail time had been the few months he spent waiting for the case to be decided. But going to prison had made Pedro question his chosen life. Being in the gang made him feel powerful. But did he really want to risk going to jail again? How long would it be before another fight erupted? Still, what else was out there for him?

 

One year later, Pedro found himself, the local priest, and some of his fellow gang members sitting in his hometown church opposite several middle-class women from San Salvador. The women, who had just arrived with their “small group” leader, Irma, looked palpably nervous being in the presence of a gang. Formerly, Pedro might have found their discomfort amusing. Today he felt a little embarrassed. These women had it together, while he was some guy from the street. But he wanted to be more. And that, incredibly, was why these women were here.

 

Not long ago, Pedro and his gang had been approached by the local priest who wanted to run a program called “RENEW” with them. This Catholic program involved forming a small group for prayer and studying the Bible, but it also — and this was what had piqued the gang’s interest — involved free training in a trade. Knowing a trade meant the ability to make a living. They had begun to work with clay; now they were even earning money from the clay ornaments and figures they made. Pedro guessed he wasn’t the only one with doubts about gang life. It might be cool now, but what about when he was 35, 45? And he had to admit that after reading the Bible with RENEW, going out to steal or fight felt like an uncomfortable contradiction.

 

Irma, RENEW director for the country at that time, and the women from her small group were here because they had heard about the gang and wanted to help. Pedro didn’t want to put them off. As the gathering progressed, and various attendees spoke and prayed, he was relieved to see the women growing more comfortable. Then Irma made an announcement.

 

“We were very glad to hear from Father that some of you would like to go back to school,” Irma said.

 

Pedro looked up. He was one of those people. In fact, a church leader from his community had already encouraged him on this point and was helping him financially. But Pedro didn’t want to stop with just high school. He wanted to continue his education. But he didn’t have the money.

 

“We think that’s a wonderful goal,” Irma continued, “and my friends here, our RENEW small group, have decided to sponsor you. We will contribute money towards your education.”

 

Pedro felt gratitude flood through him. These women didn’t even know him, and yet, somehow, they believed in him.

 

***

 

After the shooting, Pedro awoke to find himself in a hospital bed. Incredibly, he was not dead.

 

“You are very lucky,” his doctor informed him. “One of those bullets was very close to your lung. An inch or so farther…” He raised his eyebrows.

 

“Will I… be OK?” Pedro asked.

 

“It will take time,” the doctor said, “but you should have no lasting effects other than a crooked finger, perhaps, where a bullet hit.”

 

Pedro was flooded with relief. He would be able to work.

 

As the doctor left, Pedro thought of his past life in the gang. A year or two ago, he might have sought out revenge. But he was a new person now, one who wanted to save lives, not threaten them. He would simply find a new place to look for work, with the sun on his face and his feet on the pedals of his bike. He wasn’t about to let his old life get in the way of his new one.

 

What happened to Pedro?
Pedro has recovered and will be seeking a job as a nurse technician in a different area of the country.

 

About RENEW International

RENEW International works around the world to foster spiritual renewal in the Catholic tradition by empowering people to encounter God in everyday life, deepen and share faith, and connect faith with action.

 

RENEW has worked with five dioceses in El Salvador, and has created leadership training, established small Christian communities, and provided spiritual instruction for thousands of people, also helping young people involved in gangs and youth at risk.


For more information, and to help youth like Pedro, visit renewintl.org or call 908-769-5400.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.