Project Mosaic Faith and Gangs Conference Press Release March 11th

Police in Greenwich have launched the first faith and gangs conference of its kind on 11th March.
The conference has stemmed from ‘Project Mosaic’, a joint initiative bringing together leaders from all faiths across Greenwich, together with the NHS, the Royal Borough of Greenwich and police.
The project, which seeks to increase community safety and confidence in the police and other agencies, also aims to enhance youth safety and increase access to the range of youth provision and activities in the borough. 
In 2013, officers across Greenwich, led by Detective Chief Inspector Mike Balcombe, began mapping a list of faith leaders and their congregations together with youth activities run by them.
A working group was also established earlier on in the mapping process involving Greenwich community faith leaders, police, The Royal Borough of Greenwich, NHS Greenwich, Charlton Athletic Community Trust and the Greenwich Action for Voluntary Service.
The faith and gangs conference, which was fully booked and attended by 70 people, was opened by Greenwich Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent, Helen Millichap.
Detectives from Greenwich, with an extensive experience in gangs, gave a presentation about the work police and the Royal Borough of Greenwich are doing to target those responsible for violence and drug dealing through the council-funded Greenwich Violent and Organised Crime Unit (VOCU). 
Officers also explained how council, youth workers, local charities, NHS Greenwich and police are working together to help young people, who come to their attention, and divert them towards college, educational programmes and local activities such as those promoted by the Charlton Athletic Community Trust.
Faith leaders including Adel Khaireh, youth project coordinator at the Greenwich Islamic centre, and Pastor Benjamin Lindsay, from the Emmanuel Church in Greenwich, spoke passionately about different strategies faith organisations and their leaders can adopt to connect with young people and help those who may join gangs.
Nick Darvill, Crime Reduction Manager, from the Charlton Athletic Community Trust, also explained how football and sport can help young people and how the work of the trust guides them back into education and employment.
Three parents whose children had been directly involved in gangs also spoke at the conference about the impact this had on their family.
Other speakers and subject-matter experts were invited to participate and contribute to the conference.
Detective Chief Inspector Mike Balcombe, who set up Project Mosaic said; “We recognise that faith leaders and the youth activities they offer can play a pivotal role in engaging with young people, diverting them from crime. 
“The aim of Project Mosaic is to open the channels of communication and establish a network between faith leaders, police, NHS and those running youth activities. This is the first network of its kind; the vast interest in this faith and gangs conference demonstrates Project Mosaic’s initial success in strengthening links across the faith communities. We plan to follow this conference with further events. 
“We are hoping that more young people at risk of getting involved in crime will be referred to the appropriate agencies in a timely manner; this will help police and council to ensure that we help and support as many young people as possible.
“I am also hoping that this newly created network will give us the opportunity to share crime prevention advice and gain the confidence and trust of local faith communities.”
In the last six months, as part of Project Mosaic, 130 faith leaders from across the borough of Greenwich have attended training sessions provided by police, Royal Borough of Greenwich, NHS Greenwich and voluntary organisations on a variety of matters including safeguarding children, gangs, youth violence and domestic violence.
Ray Douglas delivers his talk on the impacts of media on young people

Benjamin Lindsay challenges faith leaders to invest and engage with agenta of gangs and serious youth violence

Andrez Harriott speaks on the history of gang intervention in the UK

Faith and council leaders of the Royal Borough of Greenwich



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Wednesday 11th March 2015, 9:30AM – 4PM

You are invited to The Project Mosaic Greenwich Faith & Gangs Conference 2015, a gangs and serious violence conference to educate and up-skill Faith Leaders, Faith Groups and Faith Based Organisations.

Project Mosaic
The mission of Project Mosaic is to engage the faith communities of Royal Borough of Greenwich by opening up communication channels, facilitating learning about key community issues and pathways to further support. Through working together we seek to increase community safety and confidence in the police, support agencies and groups. We also seek to enhance youth safety and confidence by engaging with youth workers and young people to increase access to the range of youth provision and activities in the borough.

Date & Time: Wednesday 11th March 2015, 9:30AM – 4PM

Venue: The Gallery in the Woolwich Centre, SE18 6HQ


Who should attend: Faith Leaders, Members of Faith Groups and Youth Workers

Cost: Free

Lunch will be provided

To book please contact:


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Press release:


At Monday’s Policing Global Cities: Gangs Summit the Mayor launched the London Crime Reduction Board’s (LCRB) Strategic Ambitions for London: Gangs and Serious Youth Violence.

The full strategy is available to download here.

The LCRB, set up and chaired by the Mayor, drafted the first ever pan-London gangs strategy in December 2012, galvanising the capital’s agencies to fight back against then rising gang violence.

Alongside the Metropolitan Police Services Trident Gang Crime Command, we have made significant progress over the past few years, including a reduction of 23% in gang crime during 2013/14.

With more effective enforcement and fewer violent gang members at large, the space has been created to redirect efforts towards prevention, though intervention and enforcement remain key.

Our work to come is detailed within the strategy, but a few highlights are:

Prevention — stopping young people from getting involved in gangs by making sure every London school has access to gang prevention programmes, focusing on children that are at risk, and supporting those transitioning from primary to secondary school.

Intervention — introducing a pan-London gang exit service to stop the cycle of reoffending and get gang members into stable jobs and housing, whilst addressing the mental health problems and trauma of both gang members and their victims.

Enforcement — maintaining the resources of the Trident Gang Crime Command at their current level, ensuring the risk that gang members pose is judged consistently across the criminal justice system, and seizing the assets of gang offenders so they don’t profit from crime.

Creating lasting change takes time, and much hard work and cooperation will be required in order for these Strategic Ambitions to be realised. The importance of bringing partners and the VCS together to ensure support for what works and encourage collaboration, innovation and efficiency was made clear through the consultation. Our next step will be to establish a London Gangs and Youth Violence Network to help the VCS join with us in bringing this strategy to fruition.

You can read the full strategy online or request a hard copy by return email. If you would like to receive regular email updates from MOPAC please register here.

This strategy is the product of extensive consultation. We would like to thank all of our partners for the role they have played in shaping it, and look forward to working with you in making it a success.

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Friend of Croydon stab victim Fico Dougan makes anti-knife crime film

By Georgie Keate

A CHILDHOOD friend of stabbed schoolboy Fico Dougan has made a film about knife crime in the hope teenagers will start taking the problem seriously.

BRIT School Roshan Roberts-Crooks, 17, has made a video called Fico Dougan: Priceless Potential to demonstrate how prevalent youth violence is.

“You hear about things but you think it’s just someone else’s nightmare,” she said.

“Then it happens to you and you lose a friend and you realise it can happen to anyone.”

Seventeen-year-old Fico Dougan died in September last year after he was stabbed at a friend’s house in Broad Green.

Set against newsreels from several incidents where teenagers have been stabbed in London, Kat Sound – a fellow pupil at BRIT School pupil – narrates a poem over the footage.

“What is the price of life, when people use knives instead of their minds?” she asks.

She goes on to say: “Knives have become the vital puzzle-piece of survival on the street.”

Miss Roberts-Crooks said she felt very strongly about this and the feeling among the younger generation that they had plenty to be scared of.

“When my brother was a bit younger he was too scared to walk down certain streets,” she said.

“If he saw a certain group of boys he would turn around and walk somewhere else.

“Kids shouldn’t have to grow up feeling like that and I think it will affect you later in life.

“A lot of young people who have seen terrible things or know things that have happened to their friends don’t have anyone to turn to talk about it.”

In the three-minute film, as photos of Fico as a baby and toddler scroll cross the screen, the poem continues: “My shoulders feel heavy with the weight of his laugh. I can still hear it dancing in the back of my ears.

“He was priceless potential – humble, loving, kind and influential.”

A trial date has been set for a 16-year-old accused of murdering Fico. The boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has not entered a plea but his trial is due to take place at the Old Bailey from May 12
Fico Dougan: Priceless Potential By Roshan Roberts-Crooks video .

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Lack of joined-up mental health support fails young offenders

Young offenders are failing to get adequate mental health support when they move into the adult system, an independent review of the criminal justice system has found.

Click here for full article

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Girls and Gangs – Centre for Social Justice Report


Press Release

This report shines a light on the harrowing reality of gang life for girls and young women.

In conducting this research, the CSJ and XLP have engaged with a wide range of individuals and organisations involved in gangs from across the UK, drawing on the expertise of the CSJ’s 350-strong Alliance of poverty-fighting charities. We spoke to many girls and young women who are or have been gang-associated and more than 30 organisations working to tackle gang problems.

The stories we have heard shocked us, and reveal a parallel world that too few policy makers understand. We have heard about the toll gang life is taking on their education, and their families, friends and communities; the horror of sexual exploitation; and of an increase in criminal activity. Yet we also found several things that can be done to help girls exit gang association such as mapping the problem, and taking advantage of specific ‘windows of opportunity’ to access girls.

We hope that this research gives policy makers and community leaders an insight into a world that has been long-neglected, and empowers them to help support girls to exit gang association.

Full Report

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The mental health of young men in #gangs

Psychiatric illness is increasingly becoming a problem among young men who are members of gangs. This is the suggestion of new research led by Queen Mary, University of London, which surveyed 4,664 UK males aged 18 to 34 and looked at measures of psychiatric illness, violence and gang membership.

It was found that such are the high levels of psychiatric illness among this demographic, that a heavy burden is being placed on mental health services as a result.

Indeed, the findings revealed gang members and violent males are considerably more likely to suffer from a mental disorder or require the assistance of psychiatric services compared to men who do not take part in such activity.

Professor Jeremy Coid, Director of the Forensic Psychiatry Research Unit at the university, said: “It is probable that, among gang members, high levels of anxiety disorder and psychosis were explained by post-traumatic stress disorder, the most frequent psychiatric outcome of exposure to violence.”

Dr Ian Gargan C Psychol, the chair of our Division of Forensic Psychology, comments:

“Google Ideas established a ‘Summit Against Violent Extremism’ a number if years ago. The purpose of this summit was for ex-gang members to describe their experiences while reconciling with victims of violent extremism.

“I was asked to provide psychology support during the summit for those who were upset, despondent and traumatised by talking as well as re-experiencing emotions associated with violence. It was an inspiring and truly educational experience while clinically challenging.

“It is clear that childhood and teenager experiences of loss, poor identity and trauma contributed to many individuals decisions to join hangs. That trauma was them compounded due to the witnessing and perpetration of violence against others while trying to confirm despite emotional conflict. These ‘gang’ experiences exacerbated existing psychological challenges and fuelled developing psychopathology.

“Those who left the gangs had done very well and were happier people, but only with significant support from family, friends and mental health professionals.

“Pre-gang development is likely to have initiated psychology disharmony contribution to various mental difficulties. The gang membership served to exacerbate the psychopathology.

“I wrote a paper about the experience which is available in the Journal of Aggression, Conflict Resolution and Peace.”

Source The British Psychological Society

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@newdayevent 2013 @RhythmFactory10 Reflections and Observations #YOLO#SWAG#PEAK


Well that was an interesting week.

First a little history. My first experience of Newday was as a youth leader for Kings Church London back in 2007. We took a 100 plus young people from Catford, SE London to Uttoxeter race course in Derby. In a nutshell I felt for the young people we brought with us. Most were Newfrontiers veterans who grew up in this movement and were well accustomed to camping. Talks by Joel Virgo and Stef Liston, seminar streams and Paul Oakley and Matt Redman style worship were the norm. But for many of the young people it was like being a fish out of water. Inner city children, many black, were expected to engage with a culture which was completely foreign to them. Even for myself, aged 29 at the time, and had been in Newfrontiers for 7 years, found the Newday environment a difficult one to participate in and to connect with. The one attempt to engage with these Catford young people was a tent with two broken turn tables playing inappropriate Hip Hop for a Jesus Camp.

I left confused and disheartened and wondered how the gospel could possibly be presented to inner city children in a more accessible way. All around the main meeting, I saw predominately white middle class children meeting with God powerfully, being equipped and commissioned for mission, while inner city children (white & black) were outside the big top meeting, left to their own devises. My own experience of Jesus Camp, Spring harvest was similar but that was in the 80’s and 90’s. Surely we had moved on?

After the 2008 Newday, I was done. I had just helped plant Emmanuel Church London with Stu Gibbs and I was working for the Lewisham Youth Offending service. My two main passions were being met and I trusted God that when the time was right I would re-visit my ire and vexation of Newday. What I didn’t expect was for that opportunity to arise so quickly. It was early 2009 when I was asked by Newday, Jaz Potter specifically, to develop a cafe that would engage the ‘urban youth’ at Newday. Although I have problem with the term ‘urban’, I decided to take on the challenge. We owed it to the increasing number of inner city youth coming to Newday to provide something they could relate to.


At Newday 2009, The Rhythm Factory was born. With the help of my wife and many people from Emmanuel Church London, we developed dance, music production, beatbox and graf workshops for the daytime element of the The Rhythm Factory. In the evening we managed to attract the best in ‘urban’ gospel talent featuring the likes of Faith Child, Victizzle, Tunday, Jaharziel and a 19 year old kid from Essex called Guvna B who had an anthem called Kingdom Skank circulating on the scene. It worked well. Ok thats an understatement. It kicked off. Guvna B even performed Kingdom Skank in the main meeting. Finally these young people had a home. Churches from Catford, Bermondsey, Croydon were happy, the ‘Bosses’ were happy and I was happy. Job done.

Then August 2011 happened.

By this time we had being delivering the Rhythm Factory at Newday for 2 years and the format had been established. In my own walk with God, I was about to be made an Elder at Emmanuel Church London and I was preaching regularly. One of the many problems with me is that I get bored easily. I was already thinking that the format of the Rhythm Factory was getting tired. I felt we needed to be not just giving the children entertainment, not just teaching them how to Kingdom Skank but solid biblical teaching preparing these inner city children for a post Newday world was necessary. Many of these young people come from the most horrific circumstances – domestic abuse, sexual abuse, gang violence, substance misuse and poor mental health. In my job, I was dealing with gang violence and teenage murders weekly. I still felt Newday were not providing answers to these specific issues, for these specific type of young people who were now attending Newday on mass. To be honest, why would they? The issues in Lewisham compared to Eastbourne were worlds apart. But I still felt if Newday were opening up the gates to this new demographic, then provide for their needs. If I’m honest it felt like as long as the Rhythm Factory provided a place for these kids to have a good time, we ticked a box. The problem was that when we spoke to these kids on a level, crazy situations and confessions would come out of the conversations. There was no where to park these discussions. My dissatisfaction was growing.

The weekend after the 2011 Newday, the riots happened. I felt for the children in the RF had been entertained at Newday but I had done them a disservice by not equipping them to the harsh reality the riots brought to the forefront of their lives.

I was done. Finished. The next two years of Newday, I deliberately kept my distance. I was angry, frustrated and annoyed that Newday didn’t see the urgency of teaching specifically to these inner city youth. I saw these children as future leaders, game changers, movers and shakers for Christ. Why did no one else see this? I was upset that what I saw on the main stage didn’t represent their reality and that it appeared that only a few people cared what was happening to these inner city young people. I wanted no part of this. I was happy to focus on my role at Emmanuel and continue fighting the fight at local and central government level in my job.

But I couldn’t get these verses out of mind:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16, 17 ESV)

The fatherless generation has always played a massive part of why I do Newday and this theme of fatherlessness kept returning to me. A lot of these children from inner city situations had no one to look up to and no one to listen to. The gospel, the answer to understanding who we truly are, was not reaching these young people. Early in 2013 my friend, Owen Hylton, asked me to get back involved in the RF. Owen, now on the management team at Newday, had observed how impactful the RF could be, but also found its lack of bite and reach frustrating.

After a two year break, I felt the time was right to get back involved, but on one condition. We were allowed to run a seminar stream, hosted by the Rhythm Factory for the type of young people we would normally see attending our cafe. I wanted complete control of design, planning and implementation of the stream. Owen agreed and #YOLO #SWAG #PEAK was born.

The basic premiss was to host a week of deconstructing contemporary POP and HIP HOP culture, equipping young men and women to live powerfully through Christ in their day to day lives, looking specifically at the biblical principles in Romans 12. In my experience of working with young people, they can only really focus fully for about 20-25 minutes, so we wanted interaction. Each seminar had a 5 minute video testimony, a talk which was no longer than 25-30 minutes long and then a 30 minute ministry time.

Myself and the fantastic Charlie Rumsby from Revelation Church created and hosted the stream. The five seminar talks were 1) #YOLO (YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE) by myself, exploring what Romans 12 says about Y.O.L.O culture and asks the question ‘Who or what are you conforming to?’ 2) Watch the Throne by Charlie Rumsby examining the topic of belonging, looking at what Romans 12 has to say about the issues peer pressure, gang association and identity. 3) OBEY! – Obedience is boring, right? by Dan Frammingham looking at what Romans 12 says about being obedient and being consistent in your Christian walk 4) God Forgives, I Don’t by Tristan Newman looking at what Romans 12 says about anger, conflict and the power of forgiveness and finally 5) #thatpower by myself and Livy Gibbs exploring the Bible’s definition of power and to facilitate the Holy Spirit to unleash #thatPOWER on those in the seminar.

The response from delegates, youth leaders and has been overwhelming. “real” “straight talking” “easy to understand” “life changing” “relatable” have been some of the words used. One youth leader even said “thank you for cutting out the bull s***” (are we allowed to swear as Christians?). All the ministry times went over by about an hour. Young people who would not normally go to the main meeting were meeting with God powerfully. It was such a beautiful thing to see. One pleasant surprise was the diversity in the room. We were averaging 250-300 young people a day in our seminars and it was such a mix in terms of ethnicity. I have always said that things have changed. Attempting to navigate through popular culture is no longer such a niche task. When I was a teen and wanted to listen to music or watch things that were not mainstream, I had to really hunt for the things that interested me and subcultures developed. Now, with the Internet and fast moving technology, everyone can access everything so easily. Barriers have come down. What an inner city youth listens to is now the same as a kid from the valleys.

A personal highlight was my good friend Tristan’s talk on forgiveness. We prayed and fasted as a team and church before Newday and someone brought a picture that our seminars would be like a thunderstorm, like the heavens opening in our seminar stream. This happened – literally (we had buckets to catch the water) when Tristan spoke. God moved so powerfully. Tristan opened up about the most personal and private things and young people responded. What I also loved, was the synergy of our seminar with Joel Virgo talking on forgiveness in the 15-18’s in the big top on the same day. This wasn’t planned but I think this is a good model for the future. The fact that Joel plugged our seminar meant we were not seen as an additional extra but part of the DNA of Newday. It was a good look.

This quote from the Newday news letter meant a lot to myself and the team:

“The Rhythm Factory has always been a popular venue, particularly with young people from urban contexts. The team are going all out this year to ensure that the teaching meets their needs as much as the entertainment does. From what we’ve seen, they’re doing a great job of engaging minds as well as hearts”

I met some incredible people this week. Young people are truly great. From ‘Man Like Malcom’ to the girls from the Plumstead church who were ever present, there were some fantastic youth who I will be forever inspired by. The motto in the Rhythm Factory was that God Transforms Minds, to Transform Lives so you can Transform Cities #TTT. This is my prayer that the people who were at Newday go back equipped, filled with the Holy Spirit and have an increased love and understand for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, applying it to their day to day lives.

My last point, is really a plea to the bosses of Newday, not to give up on thinking about the diverse demographic at this event. This isn’t just a black and white thing. It was great that we had Darrell Tunningley on the Wednesday evening and Tope Koleoso on Friday evening but I challenge Newday to keep looking outside the box when it comes to speakers and with regards to the format of Newday. Presentation is everything and I do feel for some of the more marginalised young people, when they look up on the main stage they are put off. They do not see anyone they can relate to. It goes deeper than just having a black man in a cap on stage singing with Simon Brading. Who has authority on stage?, who hosts the meeting?, who is invited up to pray or lead a response? It’s a bit like when you first meet a girl who you might be interested in. You are first attracted by how they look. The rest comes later. For many children the same applies when they are in the big top. I’m not calling for the sacking of Stu Gibbs, Simon Brading et al but I am calling for a deliberate consideration for the changing face of the delegates coming to Newday. I would personally like this reflected on stage and throughout marketing of Newday.

Finally I would like to thank some people. Phil Gray and Owen Hylton for their continued support and dedication to myself, the vision of Rhythm Factory and Newday in general. The fantastic Rhythm Factory team for their dedication, hard work, laughter, joy and professionalism throughout the week. Guvna B for just being a decent and humble chap who continues to serve year on year. All the seminar speakers who poured out their hearts and souls to make this stream work. Special shout out to Charlie Rumsby for believing the vision and helping me to construct something fresh and new (all those meetings paid off mate). To Claire Bulman and Laura Price who allowed me to focus fully on the seminars while you took control of running the RF during the day and evening.

Thanks for a great week.

See you in 2014


Video testimonies shown in The Rhythm Factory 2013:

Gem’s Story from First Light on Vimeo.

Charlie’s Story from First Light on Vimeo.

Rebekah’s Story from First Light on Vimeo.

Dominic’s Story from First Light on Vimeo.

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Fragile peace in San Salvador as youth #gangs trade weapons for jobs and hope

Since a ceasefire in Ilopango killings fell from 117 in a year to 62. Now it is the first area in San Salvador declared free of gang violence


The main square in Ilopango is bustling with noise as the sun disappears behind the distant mountains. The queue for papusas, tortillas filled with beans and melted cheese, is growing as hymns ring out from the evangelical church.

Across the square two girls – cousins aged five and six – persuade me to join in their boisterous game of football, oblivious to the young couples trying to enjoy a quiet moment. Turn the clock back a year, and this typical San Salvador twilight scene could not have existed.

The town was a battleground for the country’s two biggest street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Calle 18, with gang graffiti marking territory street by street. Both gangs used the square to display dead bodies, so everybody knew who was responsible. This public show of violence instilled deep fear among the street vendors, shop owners and taxi drivers, who were all forced to pay into the gangs’ extortion rackets. No one came out after dark. El Salvador was ranked the world’s second most murderous country in 2011.

Then, in March 2012, the gangs unexpectedly announced a truce. Leaders from both sides promised to stop the killings in return for more humane prison conditions and help in reintegrating members back into society. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) government, former leftwing guerrillas, risked the wrath of the gang-hating electorate by negotiating for peace. Within weeks the murder rate fell from 14 a day to five or six. Ilopango was one of the most dangerous municipalities of San Salvador, with 117 murders in 2011. The killings fell dramatically to 62 in 2012, and improbably it became the first area declared free from gang violence.

Marvin Gonzales, 29, a spokesman of MS-13 in Ilopango, is one of 30 gang members operating a chicken farm – a showcase truce project attracting international attention for the city’s mayor. He tells me about choosing MS-13 over his family at the age of 12; this farm is his first legal job. “I served 10 years in hell for killing a boy whose name I didn’t even know over territory. When my niece’s father was sentenced to 136 years for triple murder, I knew this had to stop. I lost six friends to gang violence, I can’t do it any more.”

It’s a steep, sweltering descent from the road to the farm, which overlooks El Salvador’s largest lake. Though once a chicken farm, for the past 16 years this land served as a rubbish dump. Alex Renderos, 26, screws up his face as he recalls the mountain of stinking rubbish. “That’s all we did for three months, it was disgusting, the insects were huge.”

He was jailed for three years when his girlfriend was pregnant for possession of a 9mm gun. “I didn’t see my daughter until she was three – which hurt here,” he says, patting his heart. “That’s why we are motivated to make this work.”

Grinning, Gonzales hands me an envelope he’s been carrying in his back pocket. His girlfriend is pregnant and he wants to show off the 12-week ultrasound scan. “I spent the best years of my life in jail, 100 men in a 20-by-15-metre room. Life for us pandilleros [gang members] is short: we end up in jail or dead. I don’t want that for my child.”

A couple of days later we drive to the flagship Calle 18 project – a tiny bakery down a side street that is covered in gang graffiti. The ovens are full and young boys are speeding off on bicycles loaded with bread rolls, honking their horns to attract customers. The senior gangsters aren’t here, delayed at another meeting at the mayor’s office with government officials, MS-13, and Father Toño Rodríguez – a controversial priest who recently joined the negotiating table.

Javier García, 22, has been working in the bakery for four months, earning $5 a day. He was kicked out of school at 14 and, like many teenagers, saw the gang as a laugh, better than being at home. “When I’m in the bakery I am not on the streets, so that’s good for everyone,” he says while lifting from the oven trays of pan francés – salty bread rolls that Salvadoreans eat with breakfast and dinner. “Maybe I will want to leave one day, but right now I still feel very strongly in my heart for my gang, we look after each other like the three musketeers.”

García says his friend Kevin was killed by MS-13 only three months ago after stepping into their territory while selling avocados. “I can never imagine MS-13 as my friends, never. If I saw one now, I would hit him, for Kevin. For this truce to work, we have to stay apart.”

The mayor, Salvador Ruano, came to power in Ilopango last May, after a narrow win for the rightwing National Republican Alliance, known by the acronym Arena in Spanish, in a FMLN stronghold – with the party punished for years of infighting by a record low turnout. Despite his squat physique, Ruano cuts an imposing figure as he bellows at me as if addressing a large crowd. “I promised both groups I would help them earn an honest living, as long as they kept their side of the compromise, and now I have them around the same table talking peace and people are definitely safer.”

He dismisses critics as “short-sighted people with nothing to offer”.

“The problem of violence here is decades old and there is no magic formula, no manual, no perfect solution… I cannot say Ilopango is free from violence, but after one year in power we are in transition from violence to peace. Those who criticise maybe have something to lose from peace.”

Ilopango’s square has a bloody past. During the 12-year civil war, it was from the airbase around the corner that the feared Atlacatl Battalion, a US–trained special forces unit, was sent in helicopters to massacre civilians in “red zones” such as El Mozote and El Calabozo.

Members of the urban guerrilla movement were captured and tortured and bodies were dumped in the square, says David Munguía, the director of FMLN Ilopango, whose office is adorned with pictures of the “martyrs”.

“After one year, all we have is a bakery and a chicken farm that employs a handful of people, this cannot sustain [the] truce,” Munguía says. “There are no social programmes or prevention projects and, OK, there are fewer murders, but delinquency, extortion and kidnappings are up.

“The Arena party doesn’t support the truce because there is no money in peace.” A recent news report valued the private security industry at £400m.

The fragile truce has powerful religious and political opponents. Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador and Arena’s 2014 presidential candidate, is pledging to get tough on crime and stop negotiating with criminals.

El Salvador has the most overcrowded prisons in the world, with 26,000 inmates kettled in prisons built for 8,400 – a direct result of the 2004 Arena Mano Duro or iron-fist policy. But Quijano’s claims that murderous gangsters are now living it up with plasma-screen TVs hits a nerve, and his popularity is growing. One taxi driver tells me that he still pays $8 a week to Calle 18 – a quarter of what he earns – and wants them all locked up for life. Mauricio Funes, the president of El Salvador, promises to tackle extortion next, but the police, narcos and other organised criminals are all at it – so that is easier said than done.

Jeanne Rikkers, from the human rights and prison reform NGO Fespad, says: “Despite the US roots, the gangs were an El Salvadorean response to an El Salvadorean reality, flourishing in a perfect storm. State obligations to rehabilitate, reintegrate, improve prisons, reform education and health, need to be done transparently with access for all, not just negotiated for some. A promise to stop killing cannot solve underlying complex social problems.”

Mejicanos, a suburb of San Salvador, will become the tenth area declared free from gang violence on 20 June, the third anniversary of the notorious Calle 18 arson attack in which 17 bus passengers died. Father Toño, who moved here from Madrid 14 years ago, chats over coffee while his guards – whose presence is the result of death threats from drug traffickers – loiter outside. “The gangs are the product of the unresolved causes of the civil war: huge inequalities in wealth, democracy and land ownership.

“The first step is to stop this war. The truce is not the solution, but without it there is no solution. This process could see the gangs becoming cultural organisations in 10 years. Or, if Arena comes into power with more iron-fist policies and support for dirty businesses like arms and security, the recruitment drive will start again.”

Source The Guardian

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Gang boy escapes streets to become Olympic hope

GANG member Sam Martin was destined for a life of crime when he was arrested for shoplifting at 13 and for the next four years lived on the streets.


He became involved in drug running and theft on the tough estate in Lambeth, south London, where he was born, too terrified to refuse the powerful gang leaders who ruled the neighbourhood.

Yet against the odds, Sam has turned his life around through his love of horses. A long way from that arrest on Oxford Street, astonishingly he is on the road to becoming one of the big equestrian stars of the Rio Olympics.

Sam is training with London 2012 dressage gold medallist Carl Hester and aiming to make the British team for Rio 2016, or even ride as an individual for Nigeria, his father’s home country.

“I first saw a horse at Vauxhall City Farm near my home in south London where I learned to ride on a donkey and I just loved it from the very start,” said the 27-year-old.

“I was getting into trouble with the police and being forced to do things by gangs like handling stolen goods. We were all too scared of being beaten up if we said no.

“I had been taken into care and left school with no qualifications. That was when I realised I just had to get out of London. I went into a newsagents and picked up a copy of Horse & Hound and saw in the adverts that most of the jobs came with accommodation.

“Luckily I was successful and managed to get a job mucking out stables and they taught me there to ride properly. Moving away from the city totally changed my life and I got the opportunity to go to work for Sarah Dwyer-Coles, a really good dressage rider.

“I started buying and selling horses and met some really different people to how I had lived before. I can’t really believe that I was ever impressed by the gangs now, those people I used to look up to and be so scared of, they were nothing.”

An apprenticeship in horsemanship followed, and Sam has won his last four British Dressage competitions, believing he is half way to reaching the standard required for the Olympics.

“I had my first write-up in Horse & Hound which was an incredible moment for me, basically coming full circle from getting the job which gave me a meaningful future.

“I have enough time to be ready for Rio and I now have a good horse which I bought for £3,500 which I am training up, but some of the horses are worth up to £10million.

“I really need a sponsor or an owner with top-quality horses so I can concentrate on getting ready rather than working to fund the training. It takes three to four years to produce a horse, and I am on track with my horse Leo.

“Not long after the Olympics I sent an e-mail to Carl Hester asking if he would help me train.

“I couldn’t believe it when I got a reply saying ‘come down’ and I’ve been having four sessions a week with him, but obviously I have to work to fund this.

“It doesn’t matter what the job is, I’ve taken them all to get the cash together – KFC, Pizza Hut, and I’ve done a bit of teaching, as well as buying and selling horses.”

While his life is now in leafy Surrey, Sam has never forgotten his roots. He volunteers at Vauxhall City Farm, and gives motivational talks at his old school, hoping his story will inspire other children to look for a better life.

Source Express

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