Anti-gang program helps kids stay safe in the Americas

Since before Merary Cerrato was born, rival gangs have terrorized her hometown of Chamelecón, Honduras. Cerrato, 15, is now at the prime recruiting age for the gangs, but she is determined to resist them, thanks to a groundbreaking program aimed at reaching kids before gang recruiters do.

Margot Andino and Merary Cerrato (Courtesy of Merary Cerrato)
Merary Cerrato, right, stands with her teacher Margot Andino. (Courtesy photo)

Gangs often force adolescent girls, like Cerrato, into sexual relationships with gang members. Boys are typically recruited to sell and transport drugs.

Cerrato is among 160,000 Honduran students to have participated in the Gang Resistance Education And Training (GREAT) program, which is implemented by the Honduran National Police and funded by the U.S. State Department.

GREAT combats gang violence by teaching fourth- through ninth-graders skills including teamwork, problem solving and peaceful conflict resolution.

“Through GREAT courses, friends and I have learned to say no to drugs and gangs,” Cerrato said. “We have been lucky enough to have police instructors through GREAT who have taught us important values through nonviolence that have helped us to stay on the right track.”

Police officer standing among children in classroom (U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa/David Dulko)
A member of the Honduran National Police teaches strategies to resist gangs to students in Tegucigalpa. (U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa/David Dulko)

The involvement of local police officers as GREAT instructors is one of the most important components of the program. Margot Andino, who has taught in Chamelecón for 20 years, said, “When GREAT came to this school, many kids did not trust the police instructors, because they feared gang members would hurt them if they found out who they were talking to.” Now, Andino says, the relationship is much improved.

GREAT began in 1991 as a local gang-prevention initiative by the Phoenix Police Department in Arizona and expanded throughout the U.S. The program has evolved over the years and has yielded remarkable results in target communities. A 2012 study from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, for example, showed that GREAT-trained students in the U.S. were nearly 40 percent less likely to join a gang within a year of completing the program than were their peers.

The State Department partnered with GREAT in 2009 to bring the program to Central America. Today the department provides training, equipment and support for GREAT instructors in seven countries across the region.

Adults and children painting mural on wall (U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa/David Dulko)
Children paint a new mural as part of the GREAT curriculum that requires students to give back to their communities. (U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa/David Dulko)

Honduras had the most homicides per capita of any country in the world between 2010 and 2014, the most recent year with available data, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, although the national homicide rate has declined in recent years. Cerrato and Andino live in Chamelecón, a particularly dangerous suburb of Honduras’ second-largest city, San Pedro Sula.

Despite the ongoing violence, Cerrato, who has lost friends and classmates to the gangs, is optimistic. “I have lived in Chamelecón my whole life and I say it proudly, I know we can turn it around and make it safe again,” she says.

This article was written by Caitlin M. Quinn.