Posted Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004

The Bishop of the Gangs: An interview with Rómulo Emiliani

Postwar Central America has been a fertile nursery for the growth of youth gangs. Mixing together a model of organization brought to the region by delinquents deported from the United States with the serious lack of economic opportunity in the isthmus’ burgeoning cities, the gangs proliferated rapidly. Today as many as 100,000 young people belong to Central American gangs, and they’ve been a key element in the worsening security situation for urban dwellers. Yet they’ve also been targeted for violence by shadowy death squads who today, rather than targeting political dissidents as they did in the eighties, simply kill kids.

Rómulo Emiliani is the auxiliary bishop of the Catholic diocese of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. In recent months he has become known throughout the region as “the bishop of the gangs.” He’s been seen often in press conferences, dressed in his clerical collar while sitting between gang leaders with ski masks covering their faces. Emiliani is Panamanian and a member of the Claretians. His highly visible work with the gangs has earned him praise from some and criticism from others, including some within the church.

NCR: You came to Honduras in order to serve as the auxiliary bishop in San Pedro Sula. You were going to lead spiritual retreats throughout the country, but you quickly made news because of your public contact with youth gangs. Some even call you the “gang priest” or the “Bishop Salvatrucha” (after the name of one of two prominent gangs). How did you get involved with the gangs?

Emiliani: I knew I was coming to a country with big problems of poverty, family disintegration, and all types of violence, but I really didn’t know much about the gangs. Shortly after arriving I began to feel there was a grave problem for these young men in the gangs. They were killing each other. Since I preached in the jails, it was there that I entered into contact with them and began to understand their world. It’s a very special world, very complex. I began to understand them and I began to love them as well. When you know someone well you can’t help but love them, in the situation they find themselves, as difficult as it may be.

I kept getting closer to them. And then I offered myself as a mediator in the big conflict between the Calle 18 and the Salvatrucha [the two largest–and antagonistic–gangs]. I started to work with leaders of the two gangs, but I wasn’t aware at the time of what this was going to involve. At times the Holy Spirit demands a lot of you and complicates your life.

I started a foundation that’s going to build a big rehabilitation center for youth from the gangs. Today I’m in touch with them a lot and I understand their world. All of them are the fruit of a serious problem of poverty, of lack of education, of hunger and family disintegration. We’ve got to help them.

NCR: It seems that many of these young men join the gangs because no one else–including the church–is organizing them or offering them alternatives. What lessons can the church learn from your experience with these young people?

They have a great sense of belonging, of cohesion, and they have a lot to teach us about what it means to live in community. Unfortunately, theirs is a world of delinquency. But they have a great sense of belonging. That’s why they mark themselves with tattoos that can never be erased. They feel committed to their gang, it’s the group that has become their family, and they love the group to the extent that they’re willing to give their life for it. That’s a lesson for Christians. Yet, lamentably, the gang members commit crimes, consume drugs, and lead lives that are very sad.

NCR: If the church is going to respond better to them and their violent environment, what does the church have to do? What type of ministry does the church have to develop in order to respond to this urban scene?

Emiliani: First the church has to understand that part of its mission is to search for, attend to, and accept those whom no one loves, giving signs of what the love of God can do. See them with compassionate eyes, and look for ways to open spaces in the parishes for them. Not to see them with disgust, nor with fear. It’s a big challenge for the church to help rehabilitate the gang members. They are the lost sheep, as the parable says, and the good shepherd leaves behind the 99 others to go look for the one that’s lost.

NCR: What does rehabilitation mean for them?

Emiliani: To rehabilitate means several things. First, there’s the sense of acceptance. They need to feel that they are wanted, that they are loved, that we want them to be part of us.

Second, we need to offer them the opportunity to train themselves in order to confront life after the gang, to get a job. In our rehabilitation center we will have workshops in carpentry, electricity, refrigeration, automobile mechanics and others, along with work in the countryside.

The third element is psychological therapy that really amounts to a kind of deprogramming. We have to make them see clearly the importance of things like respect for life, the value of life, the need to see other people as something other than enemies. This is a complicated process.

And then there’s the spiritual part, where we give them an opportunity to better know the Lord. And then would come the removal of the tattoos. And, before they’d leave, we’d get them a job. In a period of one and a half or two years, the majority could be recovered.

NCR: Are there advantages in how they are organized? Are there alternatives to completely plucking them out of their gang environment, such as that modeled by Homies Unidos in El Salvador?

Emiliani: The ideal would be for the gang members to remain in their gangs for all their life, but changing their strategies and behavior. People would have to get over being afraid of a kid with tattoos. The idea is that they, from within the gang, can change and be productive and positive persons who are reconciled with others. That’s the ideal. It’s not easy. We’ve got to know how to take advantage of that sense of belonging, but just give it a different spin. It’s not easy, but it’s got to be done.

NCR: So a few years from now the Calle 18 gang could be like the Rotary Club?

Emiliani: Sure. Why not? What wouldn’t be good idea is for the Rotarians to become a gang. No, the idea isn’t to convert them into the Rotary Club, but let them be a club, like we have football clubs. We’ve got to take advantage of this value of community.

NCR: Many claim that in Honduras and elsewhere in the region we’re experiencing campaigns of social cleansing. Why are so many youth dying, both gang members and those who aren’t in the gangs? Why are kids dying in the streets?

Emiliani: There are several factors. One is this cruel war between the Calle 18 and the Salvatrucha. Also, young people get involved in drug trafficking and they die as people settle accounts among traffickers. Others die in disputes with the police, or when they are fleeing the police.

And then there are groups that are paid to exterminate gang members. This is a serious problem. When there’s a confrontation between boys in a gang, or between gangs, there are shootouts in which two, three, or four people die. But half of the boys with tattoos who have died in recent years haven’t died in a shootout with other gang members. Instead, they’ve died of a bullet in the neck with their hands tied behind their back. This is worrisome. There are groups of assassins who are killing them.

NCR: Who are the assassins? Who is behind them? Who is paying them to kill children?

Emiliani: The killers are paid assassins who could be ex-military, ex-police, or common criminals. Yet the big questions is who’s paying them. Some say that there are big businesspeople involved in this. Others say it could be people in the government. Still others say they are relatives of people who have been killed by the gangs. There are many theories, and they all could be true.

NCR: What do you personally believe?

Emiliani: There are several agents involved in the killing. This includes groups of businesspeople who claim that extermination is the key for us to have order. Some police officers could be involved. And it’s probable that some people in the government are involved. What’s certain is that many youth are dying in Honduras. And we’ve got to stop it. What’s happening is very sad and painful. Of course, there are a lot of deaths occasioned by the feuds between the gangs. And they are often employed now as killers; people pay them to kill others.

NCR: Are they used at times by businesspeople who want to cause problems for the competition?

Emiliani: As individuals, probably. My understanding is that as a group they don’t lend themselves to be an instrument of others.

NCR: You mentioned that some people in the government could be behind the social cleansing. Who?

Emiliani: I don’t have names. I suspect there are people in the police. There could be mid-level people in certain government ministries who could also be involved. And I’m sure there are businesspeople involved.

NCR: With what motive?

Emiliani: They see extermination as the solution to the grave problem of delinquency. Just as for the first world the great solution to hunger in the world is to sterilize indigenous and black women so that there won’t be any more poor people on earth. The idea is to eliminate, to exterminate.

The church instead proposes structural changes to create the political, economic, and social conditions for everyone to have better access to wealth, to share the wealth of humanity. In a more just world there wouldn’t be so much hunger. The problems of social injustice, corruption, and savage capitalism are merely producing more poor people. This is a serious problem, to which the church needs to respond with a much more humane vision of the economy, creating or fomenting an economic system that–while it apparently has to be a capitalist one because there are no other options now–is at least more human. This system would have space for the cooperatives, for the small business owners, and would allow the poor to be competitive. This system would have those who earn more pay more in taxes, and the taxes would really be used to serve the people. But to get there we need to purify ourselves of all the political corruption that afflicts our countries.

NCR: When you go to the prisons, what do you preach to the gangs?

Emiliani: I always use some biblical texts about the theme of Jesus Christ and liberation from addictions. I talk a lot about addictions because many of these kids have a problem with drugs and alcoholism, and on top of that an addiction to violence. Generally, I’m well received by them. And from there I touch on some practical themes for their lives, the opportunity to change, to think about the future, to program their lives, to dream big. You can. You can. I tell them that not all is lost. But also that they’ve got to change their behavior.

NCR: What’s your opinion of the way the media in Central America deals with the gangs? Are they often made into scapegoats for larger social problems?

Emiliani: They always say that “supposed gang members” killed this person or that. I think we’ve put a lot of the blame on them for the problems of delinquency in this country. And they’re not responsible for all of it. We’ve got to worry more about organized crime. Yet the concept remains in the air that they are the number one problem in the country, and that’s simply not the case.

NCR: Being in ministry with gang members takes the church someplace where many would prefer not to go. Does this ministry represent a model for the church of pastoral attention that responds better to the unique environment of the region’s violent urbanscapes?

Emiliani: The church has to be where the people suffer, in the calvaries of pain. In the case of the gangs, the church should be present with these people who suffer from conflict, who are marginalized, who are feared and put down. We’ve got to be with them. The same way the church has been present with those who are sick with AIDS. The church better accomplishes its historical mission when it is present where people suffer, and suffers with the people, and helps them to recover. It’s a way of making present the incarnation of God. The church as the body of Christ has to incarnate itself in reality, it has to live in and redeem that reality.

NCR: Have you received criticism from inside the church because of your public accompaniment of the gangs?

Emiliani: I’ve been criticized both from within and without. Some people in the church claim I’m a bit naive, that I don’t see all of reality, and that I shouldn’t let myself be tricked by them. That I should be careful. It’s just a few. Not long ago we had a diocesan retreat for the clergy and all were in agreement that the gangs are a consequence of a very grave social situation, and not the cause.

From outside the church I get accused of sponsoring delinquency because I’m protecting delinquents. Yet my goal is that we respect the lives and rights of all, including those who haven’t respected others’ lives and rights, and that we give them an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves. If I was a gang member, I know that I would want someone to help me be rehabilitated. If you don’t accept the offer, that’s your problem, but we at least give you the opportunity.

They are today the lepers of Jesus’ time. It’s another kind of marginalization. It’s like a family with five children. There is one who is very rebellious, kind of gross, who gets into trouble, who comes home in the wee hours of the morning drunk. Yet the mother and father aren’t going to eliminate him for this. Instead they’ll look for a way to get him into a clinic where he can be rehabilitated. If the mother really loves her son, she’s not going to pay someone to kill him.

NCR: How do you feel when you’re with the gang members?

Emiliani: I believe the boys see in me someone who can help them, and when I’m with them in prison, all of them covered with tattoos, they surround me and speak with me as if I were their brother. They make me feel good. I don’t know how to explain this, it’s a very interesting sensation. I feel like someone with them, as if I am part of their family. Some of them are delinquents, assassins, but when they get close to me I feel like there are no barriers, that there is a fluid communication with them. And I’m aware that there are psychopaths among them.

NCR: Have you thought of getting a tattoo?

Emiliani: That would be interesting. They can be beautiful, but we’re trying to get them to erase the tattoos because they are a passport to death in Honduras.

Many people hate these kids. There are some people who’ve been their victims, and they are justified in feeling resentment. I understand that there are a lot of resentful people. But the response of the Gospel is not extermination. Nor is it to send them all to an island so they will be all alone. They are Hondurans, kids like any other kid. So we’ve got to help them.

NCR: Despite your protagonism on their behalf, there aren’t many others in the church who want to work with the gangs.

Emiliani: The priests in my diocese are so involved in so many things that they haven’t had much time to think about this phenomenon. And many of the laity are afraid or resentful. They’ve been victims of robbery, assault, or other crimes, and they’re afraid. They speak badly of the gangs. That’s kept us from forming a more specialized ministry to deal with this.

More than anything, I think it’s been a problem of lack of consciousness of the problem by the official church. There’s a certain lack of awareness that this needs attention. It’s not a lack of will to deal with the problem.

There are a lot of people who are coming to see the gangs in a different perspective, however. In the last meeting of the clergy that we had we all agreed that the gangs are the product of a grave problem, and that the church has failed to offer a more aggressive youth ministry. The lack of jobs and education, family disintegration, drug abuse–all of these things have helped to produce the gangs.

NCR: There are several groups trying to treat the drug addiction that many gang members experience. Is that a solution to their problems?

Emiliani: The problem isn’t just that a gang member consumes drugs, but that he is organized with other youth in a communion, and for that lifestyle to survive they commit crimes. They rob in order to eat. And then to climb the ladder of positions within the gangs they have to commit increasingly serious crimes, to the point where they kill someone. In addition to all that, they consume drugs. So just taking away the addiction to drugs doesn’t stop someone from being a gang member. Belonging to a gang is more complicated than that, it could involve drugs or not involve drugs. What defines someone as a gang member is not what he consumes but rather what binds him to the group.

We estimate that between 8 and 12 percent of these kids are psychopaths, they’re killers addicted to blood. There’s an addiction to violence.

In a recent attack on a bus in San Pedro Sula, the killers were gang members who were paid to kill the driver and his assistant. It was part of a turf war among drug traffickers, a dispute among cartels. But the killers, when they saw the bullets hit, when they saw the blood, they couldn’t stop killing. They killed several more people. They enjoyed watching how this person died, how that one fell, how the bullet went through another one, how the blood exploded all over. This addiction to violence is overwhelming. It’s like a drug. Afterwards, they feel calm. Instead of drinking alcohol, they kill.

NCR: Yet in the April 5, 2003, massacre in the prison in La Ceiba, in which 68 people died, most of them gang members, it was the prison guards and police who seem to have enjoyed the killing.

Emiliani: The sadism of that event is well documented in the reports by the government’s Human Rights Commissioner. It was a massacre. The boys were unarmed, they had their hands up, they were giving up and asking forgiveness, and the guards just kept shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting. And then the police and soldiers and trustees beat on their bodies with clubs. Everyone was enjoying themselves.

Sixty-one gang members were killed. They used an exaggerated amount of force to put down a disturbance that could have been controlled with tear gas and clubs. Bullets are the last resort. And there are bullets made of rubber. The last thing to be employed are real bullets. Yet they entered that prison to kill.

We seem to be living at a time when we’ve been contaminated by so much violence. There are people who like to kill. We’ve demanded that the government give us the names of those who were the killers, so that they can be put on trial. If not, then the state is responsible. Because the prison was under the jurisdiction of the government, and if the government doesn’t prosecute the killers then the government can be prosecuted internationally.

We accept that the gang members started the conflict in response to a collective punishment that had been imposed, based on a false accusation. We recognize that they started the conflict, but the reaction was disproportionate. They called out the police, the army, the navy, and the special forces. The four groups entered prepared for war. Their mission was to kill.

About twenty of the youth burned to death inside four cells. At first I thought they had locked them in the cells, but it turns out that only one cell was blocked. The other three cells had their doors open, yet whoever left the cells was shot. Whoever went out and knelt down and shouted, ‘I surrender,’ was shot on the spot. So the people preferred to burn to death in their cells than to risk escaping to die from gunfire.

The government has acknowledged much of this. The task now is that justice needs to be applied. [After considerable pressure from the church and human rights groups, on March 5 the Honduran attorney general filed charges against 51 police officers, soldiers, and prison guards implicated in the massacre. -Editors]

NCR: There hasn’t been a big outcry for justice, including from the church.

Emiliani: I was in La Ceiba a few days later, during Holy Week, and I overheard two Catholics talking about it. One of them said, ‘It’s good news that there are 61 less gang members.’ In a Mass shortly after, I declared that whoever said that, whoever supported extermination, whoever had rejoiced in the death of these boys could not participate in the Eucharist. They’d have to confess their mortal sin because they were killers just as much as those who did the killing. According to Jesus, you’re an assassin if you kill or if you want to kill. There’s no difference. The same with the adulterer and whoever desires the wife of his neighbor. It’s the same thing for Christ.

This is a serious problem. The Gospel presents us with a moral standard that’s different than that of the world. Jesus wants to know what the difference is between us and a pagan. Jesus tells us we only love the person who loves us, and we only bless the person who blesses us, and that’s not right. Jesus calls us to bless whoever persecutes us, to pray for those who mistreat us, and to love our enemy. That’s what entitles us to participate in the reign.

NCR: You were the bishop of Darién, the province of Panama that borders Colombia. Yet in 2000 you left your diocese, and then spent time in Washington, Rome, and Sri Lanka before coming to Honduras in 2002. Why did you leave Panama?

Emiliani: During the last six years of my episcopacy in Darién, I had several confrontations with the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], which had started operating in the vicariate. They robbed, kidnaped, and killed people. They were working in cooperation with drug traffickers; they received and continue to receive arms from Central America, for which they pay with drugs. I denounced all this, and asked the government to do something, to reinforce the border. They finally tripled the number of police and gave them better training, and that, relatively speaking, has reduced the violent presence of these Colombians in Darién.

Yet my denouncements cost me eleven warnings, of which six were genuine death threats. When Rome realized what was going on, they told me to leave for a while. They later decided that I shouldn’t go back. It became clear that had I done so, I’d be a dead man today. I preferred to return to Darién to finish my mission but they preferred to make a change.

Here, as well, I can’t live out my pastoral vision in very secure surroundings. Yet I feel that God calls me, and it’s not that I’m better than anyone else. God has called me to get involved, to seek out those who are in trouble. This gets me in trouble, logically.

I’ve felt a call to work with the gang members. I know that this brings risks, because there are people who don’t want the gangs to disarm and be rehabilitated. Organized crime is using these boys like guard dogs. Organized crime is very opposed to disarmament of the gangs. But it’s God’s will that they change. And I have to be where God calls me to be.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2004

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