Five Ways to Avoid Gang Life

By Michael McCabe

May 10, 2012   |   0 comments

The following article appeared in the March/April 2012 edition of USAID FRONTLINES magazine. To access the article, click here.

Michael McCabe (Panama City, Panama)

When Eduardo Tenorio was 8 years old, he was surrounded by violence, gangs, and drugs in Chorrillo, one of the most violent neighborhoods of Panama. He and his seven siblings tried to maintain their sense of resilience despite their parents’ separation and a rough environment. As a young person, he explains, he had only two positive outlets: soccer and school.

Youth pose after a soccer match / Michael McCabe

Initially, he joined a gang at age 12 for protection and fun but soon left it. “The gang was an extension of an older gang involved in dealing drugs,” he said. “I realized that the gang life led me nowhere and that my passion was to play soccer and it could lead to better opportunities and friends.”

Fast forward nine years. The 21-year-old Tenorio has finished high school and, as an assistant director of sports programs and mentoring for the Next Generation Movement, is helping other wayward youth find their footing in life. But he could have easily gone another way, as did many of his childhood friends who ended up in gangs or with their lives cut short due to street violence.

Tenorio attributes his resiliency to finding the Next Generation Movement, a community youth program started by the community leader Hector Brands. USAID recently partnered with this NGO through its Positive Outreach program that focuses on connecting youth in vulnerable communities to safe activities, including education and employment, outside of school hours.

The Next Generation Movement is just one of the local groups that USAID, through its outreach activities, supports to tackle high volumes of youth crime in the country.

Reversing Violent Trends

In Panama, the violent crime rate has increased significantly since 2005, resulting in a rapid rise in the number of youth in gangs. The majority of this violence affects youth both as victims and as perpetrators. USAID is helping Panama respond by supporting young people in five core areas internationally recognized for helping build resiliency to violence: providing a mentor, a safe space, education, access to services, and the ability to give back.

Melinda Anguizola, director of programs at Positive Outreach, emphasizes that “the power of 5” methodology comes from years of international research on what youth need to develop successfully.

“The Agency tackles these core factors chiefly by supporting alliances between a growing private-sector interest in youth development and violence-prevention committees that coordinate efforts by NGOs, faith-based groups, and public sector partners,” says Cristina Maduro, USAID activity manager for Opportunities for Youth activities.

Positive Outreach has supported the development of municipal violence-prevention committees in Colon, Panama City, San Miguelito, and Chorrera as a means of better coordinating efforts and building sustainability. Community group leaders work side by side with police, churches, municipal social workers, NGO leaders, and private-sector partners to identify gaps in youth programming and mobilize needed support.

 A Life-Skills World Cup

One of the Next Generation Movement’s growing projects, World Cup of the Barrios, is held for three months each year with a focus on helping young people find their voice and identify simple ways to create change.   The tournament engages 5,000 youth, aged 5 through 16, from 60 disadvantaged neighborhoods from Colon, San Miguelito, and Panama City, among other communities.   Participants receive life-skills and soccer training as they move through practices and weekly games in the competition.   Evaluations of the tournament have found that violence rates drop in the participating neighborhoods during the three months of the tournament.   In some cases, former gang members lecture on the importance of avoiding gang life at local schools. Youth from some of the roughest barrios are given the opportunity to serve their communities.

Also central to the methodology is the development of 24 youth outreach centers that provide integrated services, such as training in computers, English, life skills, and job preparedness, to 300 to 400 youth in each center.

Another grantee, the Conquerors School Foundation, runs the outreach center in Santa Librada, which, until 2010, had some of the highest youth violence rates in the country. Young people attend the center each day to take computer classes in the new lab, participate in cultural activities such as carnival mask design, and receive tutoring and mentoring on an array of topics. Program Executive Director Jorge Valdespino says: “Prior to the center, these kids had no safe place for out-of-school-time activities. This is their home away from home now.”

Indeed, a USAID survey in February 2011 showed that two-thirds of youth in Colon could not identify a place for safe activities before or after school, which directly leads to increased gang involvement.

Manuel Zambrano, director of the National Integral Security Program (PROSI), says that “the expansion of outreach centers to other barrios looks to counteract that trend. We need safe spaces for the constructive use of out-of-school time.”

Safety in Soccer

Eduardo Tenorio joined the Next Generation Movement when he was 13 years old, participating mainly in their soccer program as well as life-skills trainings. Avoiding the lure of the gangs was hardest, he said, when he was between 14 and 16. “The only programs around served youth 8 to 13 years old, and then suddenly I was without structured activities to protect me,” he said.

As he developed, so did the Next Generation Movement’s programming to expand and cover older youth with soccer programming and a new youth IT and cultural after-school center. Soccer had a special draw for Tenorio. Through the Next Generation Movement’s soccer program, he found daily structure as well as mentors to help him stay focused on his goals.

“Soccer meant the world to me. It was the means to find new opportunities in my community,” says Tenorio.

In 2006, Tenorio was selected to be part of the under-17 national soccer team, representing Panama’s best young prospects, and he went on to play on a minor league soccer team. When he was 20, he was selected by USAID to participate in a visitors’ exchange on sports for development in Washington D.C., and another in Guatemala.

Today, he serves as a sport and youth mentoring coordinator with the organization that once gave him a lifeline.

Through USAID support, the Next Generation Movement has received funding to train 25 youth like Tenorio as peer mentors in Chorrillo. Their trainings in local schools have mobilized 125 youth volunteers who will, in turn, work with 900 younger youth on community-improvement projects. USAID’s Positive Outreach program is supporting additional mentoring activities in other parts of the country.

Today, Tenorio no longer plays competitive soccer, but is currently finishing up his university studies in psychology: “I would like to be a psychologist to work more effectively with youth in the barrios to avoid negative choices and help them understand how they can overcome their challenges,” says Tenorio. “Soccer and the Next Generation Movement helped me to understand how sports are a way out of the violence and a way to learn leadership, discipline, and values.”

Michael McCabe is Chief of Party of Alcance Positivo (Positive Outreach).