For many young people, the lure of gang life can be difficult to resist. Gangs are bold, flashy, and unapologetic, and they offer opportunities for belonging to those who feel lost, abandoned, or forgotten. The promise of easy money through the drug trade is another factor that draws many to gangs, and the danger and violence associated with drugs only adds to the excitement of the lifestyle.
But beneath the shiny exterior lies a darker reality. The money, feelings of power, and sense of community offered by gangs are fleeting and illusory, and unless a route of escape can be found those who pledge their allegiance to gangs are destined to end up behind bars or in a body bag. Drugs and the drug trade play a critical role in facilitating and reinforcing this depressing reality; drugs bring destruction and misery into the lives of dealers and users alike, inevitably leaving a trail of broken bodies, broken spirits, and broken families in their wake. The drug/gang nexus is a killer of hope for all who become ensnared in its seductive trap, and anyone with a family member or loved one who has fallen in with a gang needs to do anything and everything they can to persuade him to flee from this alliance of the damned.
Fortunately, many young people who join gangs eventually realize they are following a path to nowhere. But getting out of a gang can be a thousand times more difficult than getting into one. Because gangs are so deeply implicated in organized crime, they are dominated by a culture of paranoia, and gang leaders are naturally concerned that anyone who leaves could sell their former brothers out to the police in return for protection or amnesty for their own crimes. Consequently, anyone who wants to escape from a gang could be forced to leave their homes and their families behind for the sake of their own safety and the safety of their loved ones. Trying to start over in a new location where you don’t know anyone and have no immediate prospects for employment can be a frightening proposition, but if the only alternative is death, or the constant fear of retaliation, re-location may be the only sensible alternative.
Tips for the Transition
Refugees attempting to escape from the gang lifestyle do not have to go through it all alone. Virtually every large city with a gang problem has one or more community organizations, frequently staffed by former gang members, who are there to provide assistance, encouragement and guidance to those who desperately want to leave the drugs, violence, and fear of gang life behind them. Oftentimes, the ex-gang members involved with these groups still have the respect of their former comrades, and anyone who turns to them for help when trying to leave a gang may be protected from the threat of retaliation. Churches can be another good source of assistance, and because of the respect that faith-based institutions frequently gain in their communities through their good works those who fall under a church’s protective umbrella should be able to feel fairly secure. Police officers, along with parole and probation officials, can also provide aid and advice for those seeking safe exit from gangs. However, anyone relying on these sources of assistance might be better off leaving town, since the relationship between law enforcement and local gangs is almost always marked by antagonism and deep mistrust.
In general, the transition away from the gang lifestyle is best made gradually, so it will not seem as if the person leaving the gang is abruptly turning his back on his friends and brothers. Drifting away little by little from past gang-related associations and activities is much less likely to draw a hostile response from current gang members, who may themselves be secretly harboring thoughts of someday leaving that life behind. As long as gang leaders do not feel they are being treated with disrespect, or being betrayed in some fundamental way, they may not make much of an effort to hold on to someone whose life choices appear to be slowly carrying them in a different direction.
Drug dealing has become an inextricable part of gang life, but with drugs being so readily available abuse and addiction also run rampant. Anyone who hopes to leave a gang but also overcome addiction should leave town to seek treatment as soon as possible, and before doing anything else, so they can concentrate entirely on getting clean and sober before attempting to break away from the gang lifestyle for good. There is only so much a person can be expected to accomplish at once, and when addiction is involved all other considerations will need to be put on the back burner until that problem has been dealt with constructively and satisfactorily.
Life vs. Death: The Final Decision
Ultimately, despite the risks involved with trying to separate from a gang no one who values their future or their own life has any other realistic choice. Eventually, those who join gangs will be leaving their brothers in arms behind: the only question is, will the cause of the final separation be prison, death, or a logical and well-thought-out personal decision? The latter option takes considerably more courage than the former two, and it is the only one of the three that offers the long-term promise of a life worth living.