Ten Former Gang Members Get a New Start as Pepsi Employees

December 9, 2008


When Dervyn Hernandez started his new job at Pepsi Centroamerica in Guatemala, Human Resources Manager Fernando Letona, told only other managers about the young man’s past life as a gang member.

But Hernandez’s hard work soon caught the attention of several coworkers. Along with growing acceptance of Hernandez, came the realization that former gang members like him can be helped with job opportunities.

Pepsi soon hired nine more former gang members – an unprecedented effort for the soft drink maker to help these young men start new lives.

It all began nearly two years ago when Harold Sibaja, Creative Associates Regional Director of Latin America, met with leading Guatemalan businesses to encourage them to hire former gang members. Sibaja, a leading expert on gangs, directs the USAID Youth Challenge Alliance Program (YCP), and its Desafio 200 activity, also known as Challenge 200. It helps gang members turn their lives around by giving them a stake in society through opportunities in corporations and participation in initiatives through community and religious organizations.

“At the time USAID/YCP had 100 at-risk young men who they wanted to place with private employers, and Pepsi Centroamerica thought that one of them could work with us,” Letona said. “Sometimes you have to take the risk. Really, it’s one of the most beautiful experiences that we have had. We saw that he wanted to work hard and change his life, so we just gave him the opportunity and helped him to start his new life.”

Throughout northwest Central America – notably in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the spread of youth gangs has lead to an increase in youth violence. According to The New York Times, Guatemala has about 6,000 murders a year – a rate higher than that during some years of the country’s 36-year armed conflict – attributed to gangs. Though estimates vary, some experts say that there are as many as 60,000 gang members across the three countries where the USAID/YCP operates. High crime rates and threats of extortion have also led to negative repercussions on the social fabric and economies of these countries. In this climate, former gang members who seek jobs – and who are recognizable by their tattoos – are considered unemployable.

“We saw a great opportunity to help and to be involved with our community,” Letona said. “We are a national company that wants to give back to our country. When we met Harold Sibaja, we saw a nice opportunity to get involved and give back to the community.”

Letona and his team provided solutions to some of the challenges former gang members confront, such as a lack of funds to pay for transportation to and from work. “So, we started to give them money at the beginning of their employment with us,” Letona said. “But we didn’t just hand them the $80 dollars or so, that pays for transportation and lunch, we added an extra hour to their work day.”

When they first arrived at Pepsi, the 10 former gang members were given jobs cleaning and sweeping because of their lack of education and work experience. But Hernandez asked for a more challenging job.

“We said ‘okay, we will let you try one of the machines that stacks boxes,’” Letona said. “He started to learn how to work this machine after work and, now, he drives it. His position is very important at that company level, an employee is recognized by other workers when he drives this machine.” According to Letona, Hernandez has done so well that Pepsi is considering helping him to go back to school next year.

“This is one of the most important initiatives for our company, this is a nice experience, because we Guatemalans have to solve this gang problem,” Letona said. “If they want to get out of gangs, we have to give them the opportunity to change, the opportunity to work. We are trying to get other Guatemalan companies involved in USAID/YCP’s work through the Guatemala Human Resources Association, because we think the initiative is so important.”

Pepsi’s partnership with USAID/YCP goes beyond employing former gang members. Pepsi has also encouraged the other youth on their staff to continue their studies with financial assistance and has provided uniforms and other assistance for YCP’s participants to organize a soccer team.

“Pepsi is a committed partner,” Sibaja said. “They see the Desafio Program as their own. They advocate with other businesses to hire former gang members and to contribute to the reduction of youth violence. They put together their own video about the Program and are supporting our Desafio programs in Honduras and El Salvador. Pepsi Centroamerica is an example of business social responsibility.”

Speaking of the USAID/YCP youths on his staff, Letona says, “Sometimes they are nervous, they don’t look you in the face, you look in their eyes and see they are confused. They are shy at the start and that is the most difficult, you have to work on their self esteem and that’s the reason why I tell my staff to talk with them, to get involved with them…also you can’t help all of the problems but most of them you can.”

YCP is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and is a follow-on to the Creative managed and implemented Youth Alliance Program, which made international headlines when it produced a reality TV series called Desafio 10 Paz para los EX ™ also known as Challenge 10 Peace for the EX ™ . The five-part series (viewable at chronicled the competition between two groups of five former rival gang members who established legitimate businesses with the help of private-sector mentors. It was followed by Desafio 100 which helped tens of young female and male former gang members receive skills training and job opportunities.

— Alexandra Pratt with assistance from Harold Sibaja.

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