Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Evangelicalism Offers a Way Out for Gang Members

José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen, "Mara Forever? Factors Associated with Gang Disengagement in El Salvador." Journal of Criminal Justice 69 (July-August 2020).

This study examines the factors associated with intentions to leave a gang in a context controlled by some of the most violent and structured street gangs in the Americas. It contends that group interactions better explain intentions to leave a gang in a place like El Salvador than life-course events.

Based on a series of logistic regressions using a cross-sectional survey with nearly 1196 active and former gang members in El Salvador, we identify the factors associated with disengagement intentions. We complement the analysis with 24 in-depth interviews with former gang members.

We find that group-related variables, such as the number of gang members in the clique, learning that a peer has successfully left the gang, incarceration, and affiliation with an Evangelical church are the most critical factors associated with attempts of disengagement. Intentions to leave the group are a direct function of the gang's ability to regulate the life and peer relationships of its members.

Social environments controlled by gang rule constrain the potential effects of life-course events. They curb the chances of disengagement, even among those with maturational tools required to desist from gang life.

Jonathan Rosen has done a lot of great work on gangs in El Salvador, and we discussed the issue of leaving gangs on my podcast back in December 2018. As always with his work, read the methodology section about interviewing gang members--it's not your everyday work.

The key findings are that "life-course" events, such as getting married, employment, or having children, don't seem to prompt gang members to leave. Instead, religion is central, both because it offers some moral clarity for the individual, but also because it is an accepted reason. In other words, you won't get killed for it.

It would be neat to connect studies like this to analyses of Evangelicalism in Central America. It's interesting, for example, that Evangelicalism offers a path out that Catholicism apparently does not. Perhaps only Evangelicalism provides a sense of being saved, of actually changing course. As Cruz and Rosen note, gang leaders "only accept the Evangelical church." Catholicism doesn't count.


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