- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

A barely audible whisper of “MS-13” in many public schools raises attention in hallway corners, locker areas and restrooms, and elicits a wave of emotion from ire to fear to remorse.

However, most of the 23 high school students in Richard Sutton’s George Washington University Summer Scholars criminal justice and criminology class had no knowledge of Mara Salvatrucha-13 until they came face to face with one of its former gang leaders last week.

“You don’t want to live the life I’ve lived,” the 22-year-old former MS-13 gang leader told the class.

The students listened intently to his story of emigration, gang membership and seclusion. The former gang leader, who defected from a Montgomery County clique in the summer of 2005, asked that he not be identified because he has a pending asylum case and is in hiding from the gang.

The former gang member said he lives day by day, looking over his shoulder. He said he is safer in the United States than he would be in his native El Salvador, where MS-13 leaders do not permit deserters to live.

The GWU high school scholars might not have expected such an intense lesson when they signed up for the two-week pre-college criminology class in Monroe Hall, Mr. Sutton said.

“There is only so much you can learn in the comfort of these class walls. You don’t begin learning about yourself, your community and how you fit until you spend time challenging yourself. The real world is a challenge; this classroom is easy street,” said Mr. Sutton, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant and retired senior policy adviser for corrections with the Department of Justice.

Gregory Segal, 16, a junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, said: “Until today’s class, I never knew there were gangs in Bethesda and Rockville and I am sure many of my friends are unaware of this too. This is appalling — that I have lived in this area my entire life and was never made aware of this terrible [gang] crisis.”

Gregory wants to become a criminal defense lawyer and is active with his school’s mock trial team.

“Hearing a first-person account made me think about the issue. I want to become more involved in the community to try and prevent other people from having as traumatic lives” as the former gang member, he said. “Action must be taken to stop people from joining gangs when they’re young, so they’re not trapped, like [the former gang member] is.”

During the Tuesday lecture, a young woman asked the former gang member, “What can we do to help?”

He was caught off guard. “That is a hard question,” he said.

After grasping for the right words, the former gang member asked whether anyone was fluent in Spanish.

Francisco Pardo, 22, a resident assistant chaperoning the students, was the lone voice to answer. Mr. Pardo, who is from Miami and is entering Fordham Law School in the fall, said: “When I was asked to interpret, I felt a special connection to [the former gang member] and felt that his true emotions shined.”

Mr. Pardo said the former gang member’s presence demonstrates how “academia benefits from community experiences.”

“It becomes practical and comes alive when community issues intersect with the intellectual world,” he said.

The former gang member’s advocacy began as an extension of his relationship with Identity Inc., a youth development nonprofit founded in 1998 to serve the Hispanic community in Montgomery County. Identity’s work with the former gang member gave him the impetus to begin the lengthy and complicated process of defecting from MS-13 and to begin taking an active role reaching out to impressionable young Hispanics at risk of joining gangs.

After speaking for 45 minutes, with a gentility that belied the visceral nature of his story, the former gang member received resounding applause. After he left, students watched a 25-minute gang prevention video featuring his story that originally aired on a Montgomery County cable access channel in 2006.

The video presentation discusses public policy approaches to combating gang activity, including prevention, intervention and suppression. The video shows the former gang member, wearing a dark-hooded sweat shirt draped over his head, with his back facing the camera, speaking through a translator, as he reveals dangers of life within MS-13.

According to documents provided by his pro bono attorney, Chris Nugent, the former gang member said he emigrated from El Salvador to Los Angeles in April 2001. Under the intense pressure of his elder cousin, the former gang member was “jumped” - or initiated - into MS-13 almost immediately. After a friend was killed, he wanted to leave the gang. He crossed the country via bus and arrived in the D.C. area days after Sept. 11, 2001.

His cousin, who also relocated to the D.C. area, re-emerged as the leader of the local MS-13 clique and forced him to rejoin the gang. At 16, he emerged as the leader of his clique. At 18, he defected permanently and went into seclusion. He voluntarily sought protection at an area asylum office. If his case is denied, the former gang member will be deported.

Mr. Sutton said of the former gang member’s story: “We don’t want to hear, we ignore, we forget, we hide, but the reality is, it’s personal. It’s political. It’s real world. It cannot be denied.”

• John Muller is a freelance writer living in Montgomery County.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide