LOS ANGELES — The scourge of gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has driven tens of thousands of migrants into the U.S. and other Central-American countries.

But the two major gangs that control whole swaths of these countries, MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, are not native to the region: They are a U.S. export straight out of Los Angeles.

“MS-13 started in the Pico Union area,” said Father Stan Bosch, a psychologist with years of experience as a pastor in gang-ridden Compton, Calif. “They were young fellows, 14 or 15 years old, who had watched their parents literally beaten and decapitated in front of them.”

The Catholic Church in Los Angeles is actively engaged in ministering to gangs, healing lives touched by gang violence and trying to address the root causes of gangs to prevent young people from getting entangled in them.

Father Bosch explained that Salvadoran youth who formed MS-13 and 18th Street originally came to the U.S. after fleeing the violent civil war that gripped their home country. They formed gangs to protect themselves against existing African-American and Asian gangs and to find a common identity in a larger society from which they felt excluded.

“They came together to form a gang relationship partly out of desperation, partly out of the common experience of trauma and partly for survival,” he said.

Father Bosch has provided group therapy for youth in gangs since 2006 at 18 education centers in L.A. He’s a supervisor and psychotherapist for the city’s Gang Reduction Youth Development Program.

He said the youth in the gangs exhibit what is called “developmental or complex trauma,” a condition he said is similar to “post-traumatic stress disorder,” but with the difference that the trauma is caused by repeated events. He said these youth in gangs grew up with the wail of sirens, and as kindergartners, they saw people shot and killed in front of them on the streets.

“Our youth don’t have words to put to their feelings,” he said, adding that it is essential to help them “find words to put to their feelings” instead of acting out their anger with revenge and more violence.


Ministering to the Nation’s Gang Capital

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding county has been dubbed the “gang capital” of the United States. The LAPD website notes that the city has 450 active gangs, with a combined 45,000 members.

It said the city has seen 16,398 verified violent gang crimes, 491 homicides, approximately 7,047 felony assaults, 5,518 robberies and nearly 100 rapes over the past three years.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is trying to take a holistic approach to gang intervention and reducing gang violence. Besides partnering with local agencies to provide practical options for gang youth, they have three main initiatives: an incarceration ministry, a victims’ ministry and a families-of-the-incarcerated ministry.

Javier Stauring, director of the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice, said that chaplains and 600 volunteers go into the juvenile halls each week. They seek to build relationships with youth and show them that God loves them and cares for them, replacing their idea of a God who is vindictive toward them with an understanding of a loving, caring God.

“The lens of our ministry is accompaniment,” he said. “We try to share that image of God through our relationship with the youth.”

He said it is “really powerful” to see family members come together and share each other’s stories. In a program called “Healing Dialogue in Action,” families of incarcerated youth and victims can hear each other’s stories and discover the similarities of their painful journeys.

“We’ve had moms say that they’ve been to every kind of therapy you could imagine in the last 10 years, and nothing has helped them as much as listening to this mom whose child is serving a life sentence in prison,” Stauring said.


Church on the Streets

But individual parishes and other Christian churches located on the streets of Los Angeles are ground zero for gang intervention and gang prevention, according to Alex Sanchez, a reformed gang member who is now executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit Homies Unidos in Los Angeles. Homies Unidos works to prevent youth from entering gangs and helps gang members to renounce violence and leave the gang life.

“It is critical that faith-based organizations are engaged with what their communities are going through,” Sanchez said. “In many of the communities where gangs exist, there are many religious organizations in the area, but many of them do not do anything to really speak on the issue or address the issue in a way that could be effective.”

Sanchez said faith and prayer are important, but also “action.” He said a Presbyterian church in Koreatown gave his organization “critical” help by creating space at their church to host Homies Unidos’ programs.

“It was right in my neighborhood. It was inside a church, and that made a difference, because most of the people in gangs are also believers with faith in God — it’s just that they are misguided,” he said. “So when you talk about churches, they are safe spaces — areas where they can feel they don’t need to be protected from anybody doing them harm, and that includes law enforcement.”

Stauring said he would like to see more parishes get creative about being involved in the community and fighting gang violence. He said some parishes have concerns about having gang youth mix with others in their youth ministries; a number of parents see youth ministry as a haven for their children from gang influence. But Stauring believes pastors and pastoral leaders should be able to work around those issues and give gang-affiliated youth a welcome home in churches.

“The Church can play an instrumental role in inviting young people to belong to a family that is based on loving God, loving ourselves and others,” he said. “Not just saying, 'You have to leave the gang,' but offering them something once they leave that” life.


Untapped Power

Father Bosch said the Catholic Church in Los Angeles still has untapped power in its 287 churches. Just opening doors and having active outreach to the community, he said, can make a real difference.

He noted a program at his former parish, Our Lady of Victory in Compton, called “Ecclesia in Barrio” (Church in the Neighborhood). The neighborhood was divided into sections, and people in the parish go out to their section with the goal to “know everybody by name,” make the parish’s presence known on the streets and build relationships with people in those neighborhoods through various activities, such as processions or quinceañeras.

He said “the power of [the Church’s] presence” at funerals of victims of gang violence is “underestimated.” At Our Lady of Victory, he said, people are invited to come back to church after the funeral to light candles, “We would just do a healing of memories, walking through infancy to year by year, letting people get in touch with the pain, abandonment or trauma they experienced.”

“It allowed people to talk about what they were feeling, and it became very powerful. Real healing happened, but also relationships became solidified,” he added.

Additionally, he said it helps for a priest to be present quickly at the scene of a shooting, listening and talking to people, because that is when “kids start talking about payback” and need guidance to choose love over hate.


Addressing Root Causes

According to those involved with the problem, the root causes of gang membership are heavily related to family disintegration. Stauring said gang-prone youth often experience “trauma and neglect” in the home, such as domestic violence, mothers hardly ever seeing their children because they are working two jobs to support the family, and absent fathers. The youth try to seek stability and acceptance in the gang, which gives them an identity.

“Many times, the fathers are not present because of this cycle of incarceration,” he added.

Sanchez said the community needs to reach out to that one youth who is struggling, “the one who is not eating correctly, using bad words, who you don’t want your son hanging around with.” He said people need to help that kid out of the gang, expose him to good things and even invite him to eat in their homes, instead of ignoring him as he grows up and finds acceptance elsewhere.

“We have to stop our young men and women from committing suicide by joining gangs,” he said.

Sanchez said one African-American boy he reached out to when growing up in Compton — he invited him to play video games — ended up becoming a community leader years later, rather than joining a gang like his older brother. That reformed youth later told him how that act of kindness influenced him.

“What if I would have pushed this kid away, saying, ‘Get out of here, man’ and just discarded this kid? What would he have thought of himself: that he was hated and nobody liked him?” Sanchez said.

Father Bosch said one successful program of collaboration hosted by the city’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development is called  “Summer Night Lights.” It is held in 24 city parks in areas afflicted with gang violence, with free food and activities in the lighted parks from 7pm to midnight.

Father Bosch said the gang captains, local authorities and gang-intervention workers meet in advance to make sure  the event goes peaceably without confrontation between rival gang members. It creates a safe space where people can mingle and create personal and social relationships and understanding with people from other communities or other gangs.

“It’s very effective. Gang homicides have been reduced 45%,” he said, due to this collaboration.


Committed, Long-Term Outreach

In the gang-intervention work he does, Sanchez said maybe “two or four out of 10 will listen to you.” But he said those four will then influence the other six, and maybe in “two or three years,” just two out of 10 will end up dead or in prison.

“We don’t expect a quick solution just because a kid came through a program once,” he said, emphasizing that the outreach has to be committed and long term.

Said Sanchez, “The message that the Church can take on is: Don’t abandon our children. We can’t.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.