Person holding hands behind head (© Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters)
U.S. officials are working with counterparts in Latin America to prevent young people from joining gangs. (© Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters)

In the fight against gangs, law enforcement officials worldwide share a similar problem: combating “The Big Lie” from gang members who manipulate young people.

“They promise money, parties, alcohol, drugs, sex, a family and a fun time,” says Jay Lanham, who heads a regional gang task force in Northern Virginia. “In reality, many will end up in jail, the hospital, prostitution or dead.”

Woman looking into detention cell (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
A tour of a juvenile detention center in Virginia, includes a look at individual rooms. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Lanham was among juvenile justice experts from the U.S., Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala who shared their approaches to preventing young people from joining gangs. The officials met during a weeklong program in May 2018 hosted by the U.S. Department of State.

The program brought them to a juvenile detention center in Fairfax, Virginia, outside of Washington. Some of the young people living in this Virginia facility are there after the first time they got into trouble with the law. The hope is that it will be their last.

“The primary goal is to reach those being recruited before they join a gang. It is much cheaper to prevent joining a gang than arresting and prosecuting these individuals,” Lanham says.

For young people who do end up in detention centers, many successful programs keep them in a safe environment and away from adult inmates. “We’ve made history in Guatemala,” says Carlos Francisco Molina, a chief official with his government’s juvenile detention facilities. “For the first time in Central America, our detention centers have eliminated overpopulation and now all [incarcerated] juveniles are separated from adult inmates.”

People standing behind glass partition (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
A coordinator at the Juvenile Detention Center in Fairfax County, Virginia, Jamaine Arvin (center), gives a tour to Latin American officials. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

The experts discussed the importance of teaching life skills too. A program in Costa Rica relies on a “restorative justice” approach that aims to keep youths “out of the system with the tools that allow them to move forward and rejoin society and have a different life — long term,” says Adriana Ramirez Cover, with the juvenile court administration of Costa Rica.

Part of Costa Rica’s method includes having the young offenders sit down with their victims, assume responsibility for their crimes and acknowledge the harm their actions caused.

Three people standing on basketball court (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Sports help offenders to refocus their behavior. Jose Diego Robles, Mexico (left); Adriana Ramirez Cover, Costa Rica; and this Virginia facility’s director, Jason Hout, talk basketball. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Jose Diego Robles, a state legislative official from Baja California, Mexico, says he finds it helpful to compare “a common experience and a common threat” with his counterparts from the U.S. and across Latin America. “These teenagers are involved with gangs because of the influence of their elders, and it’s usually drug-related.”

To prevent young offenders from joining gangs, Robles said to tell them, “’Here are your tools to help you become adults,’ then they no longer have to commit the crimes.”