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Intervention Offers Hope Where Police and Border Crackdowns Fail
Inside the locked gates of a county juvenile detention facility in Sylmar, all eyes are on Ernesto "Satan" Deras.
Before him are two dozen teenagers accused of violent crimes and facing the prospect of being tried as adults and sent to state prison.
Deras, a veteran of the violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha, speaks in a dry monotone, but his message settles in with an ominous weight: Give in to gang leaders or other criminals and you'll waste away in prison — or die at an early age.
Lean, with close-cropped hair and wearing a Dodgers T-shirt, Deras looks younger than his 36 years. He's a gang intervention counselor with Communities in Schools, a North Hills nonprofit group. It's a job that takes him to the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall on Thursday afternoons and beyond: to dark street corners to calm tensions after drive-by shootings, to gang meetings at local parks to broker truces, and to his Pentacostal church in Van Nuys, where he invites gang members trying to start a new life.
At a time when Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has grown dramatically and captured the focus of government authorities across the U.S. and Central America, law enforcement officers, policy analysts and human rights activists agree that more programs like Deras' that emphasize intervention, education and training are needed to counter the scourge of gangs.
Stephen C. Johnson, a Central America expert who studies MS-13 at the conservative Heritage Foundation, recently warned Congress that police and immigration crackdowns alone won't stem the growth of a gang that has up to 50,000 members in six countries.
"We are going to have to encourage opportunity and social progress," Johnson said in an interview. "If we don't, we won't have enough jails."
Even the FBI, which has deployed about 100 agents on MS-13 investigations nationwide, is looking beyond criminal prosecutions. "Enforcement alone is not going to stop the root causes of this gang," said Robert Clifford, director of the bureau's MS-13 task force. "We've got to reduce the supply of kids."
Among other things, Clifford said, he plans to have agents refer new recruits and youngsters on the fringes of the gang to intervention and counseling programs. Otherwise, arrest or deportation may drive them deeper into the group. "All we're doing is restocking or repopulating the gang," he said.
In the Maryland suburbs of Washington, where MS-13 membership has surged in recent years, authorities initially responded with tough police tactics. Now, they are gearing up a series of anti-gang programs, including a youth center near the heart of MS-13 turf in Langley Park.
Glenn F. Ivey, the elected prosecutor in Prince George's County, said more needs to be done to counter heavy recruiting by MS-13. "There's been a big hole there that we're trying to fill," Ivey said.
Maryland and other states are looking to Los Angeles, which gave birth to MS-13 two decades ago and has seen sharp drops in gang violence since the early 1990s.
As with law enforcement efforts, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs. Some gang investigators are suspicious and believe that anti-gang workers become too cozy with street criminals.
But among the models the U.S. Justice Department cites as most promising are programs like Communities in Schools. The program is successful in part, authorities in the Los Angeles area say, because Deras and other former gang members are able to penetrate bonds of loyalty that make gangs difficult for outsiders to reach.
"They bring hope to these kids," said Ken Kondo, an L.A. County Probation Department spokesman. "They're making a tremendous impact here."
'I Loved War'
In the spartan dayroom at the Sylmar lockup, surrounded by teenage offenders — most with shaved heads, several with gang tattoos — Deras offers his own life as an object lesson in war, street violence and redemption.
After his father died of cancer when he was 7, his mother raised him on a coffee plantation near Santa Ana, one of El Salvador's largest cities, where she cleaned the owner's home. When civil war broke out in 1980, the area became a battleground between government forces and leftist insurgents.
Deras recalls admiring the government soldiers, who wore matching green, U.S.-issued uniforms and carried M-16 rifles. When he was kicked out of a Catholic school at 16 for fighting, he joined the army.
He was selected for special forces training, and his instructors included U.S. military advisors. He became a rifleman in one of the Salvadoran army's most fearsome and ruthless infantry units, the Ramon Belloso Battalion.
Looking back, Deras tells the boys at juvenile hall, he sees that his commanders manipulated him.
"There were officers who told me to 'go kill that family,' " he says. "And I would do it, even though I didn't want to."
His army buddies nicknamed him "Satan," Deras says, because before battle he practiced black magic rituals of burning incense, lighting candles and placing curses on the enemy. "I didn't want to just hurt people with weapons. I wanted to hurt them in other ways," Deras says.
In November 1989, he was shot in the shoulder during a bloody offensive in the suburbs of San Salvador. He was sent home to recuperate. His mother begged him not to go back to his unit and persuaded him to go live with relatives in the San Fernando Valley, where he could land a good job and make something of his life. He says he made the monthlong journey by bus and crossed the border into Arizona illegally. Shortly after arriving in March 1990, he received political asylum as a former combatant in the war.
But Deras wasn't prepared to leave the fighting behind and wanted to be part of MS-13, which had been formed by Salvadoran refugees.
"I loved war," he says.
The way he saw it, gang life wasn't much different from the army. You were fighting alongside your countrymen, he says, only this time the opponents were entrenched Mexican American street gangs.
Within months of arriving, he joined an MS-13 clique operating near North Hills. Drawing partly on his U.S. military training, Deras says, he showed members how to clean their weapons and break up into small teams when they carried out crimes.
"I didn't want to be a simple gang member," he says to the boys at juvenile hall. "I dreamed of being a leader."
His rise in MS-13 was bloody. In 1991, a friend died in his arms after being shot in a Van Nuys alley. A year later, in a turf fight with another gang, Deras was repeatedly kicked in the face. His mouth was wired shut for two months, he says, and he lost 30 pounds because he could consume only liquids. He says he did repeated stints in County Jail — the longest a year — for armed robbery, car theft and weapons possession.
By 1992, he was an MS-13 shot caller as crack cocaine flooded the streets and gangs were using high-powered weapons, helping fuel record levels of bloodshed in the city.
Around the same time, activist William "Blinky" Rodriguez was trying to organize a truce among dozens of Latino street gangs across the Valley. The only gang not involved was MS-13. Rodriguez, who now heads the Valley's Communities in Schools program, said Deras was one of the few people with the power to bring his clique to a peace summit at a Pacoima park. Rodriguez invited Deras, and he accepted.
As several hundred warring gang members gathered around, Rodriguez read from the Bible and said he did not want them to end up like his son, who at 16 was killed by gang members in a random shooting as he was learning to drive a stick-shift car in Sylmar.
Deras said that when he heard Rodriguez read from the Bible, a seed was planted.
But the seed didn't flower until 1998, when the senselessness of his life finally hit him. He began going to church.
He said MS-13 members accepted his change but issued a dire warning: His conversion had better be genuine and not just a ruse to break away from the gang. "If you're going to do it, do it right," he recalled one leader saying.
Impressed by Deras' turnaround, Rodriguez said, he hired the MS-13 veteran in 2003 to work with other inactive and ex-gang members at Communities in Schools. Deras said he has become a family man with six children, including a boy born in November.
Standing before the teenagers at juvenile hall, Deras says those he once sought to kill he now wants to help. "I don't use my hands to carry a gun or spray can," he says.
The challenges facing Deras were evident on a Sunday morning when he arrived at his Van Nuys church with two MS-13 members — a 23-year-old who said he'd changed his life and another, a 19-year-old, who insisted he wanted to.
The older churchgoer, Rene "Demon" Ramirez, carried a Bible. He said he finally pulled away from the gang after a bullet ripped into his gut two years ago during a drive-by shooting.
After migrating illegally from Guatemala with his mother when he was 11, Ramirez said, he ran away, joined the gang and spiraled downward into drug addiction, arrests and suicide attempts. Now, he's working, helping to support a family, and wears a colostomy bag that he said keeps him focused on a future beyond gangs.
"My battle is spiritual," Ramirez said. "But I know God will help me."
The 19-year-old wore a watch cap during the service and asked not to be identified. He was slower than the others to close his eyes and join Deras and other worshipers as they raised their arms and sang Spanish hymns. Afterward, he said he still runs with MS-13 members but likes attending the Sunday services.
"Every time I come," he said, "a little of the bad goes away."
Days later, he was smoking weed with another gang member as they patrolled an Encino apartment complex that the gang claims as its turf.
'These Guys Are Dead'
For Deras, the job follows no predictable or convenient schedule.
One rainy evening, after leaving the hospital where his prematurely born son was being treated, he got a call for help from a woman he has known for years. She's an inactive MS-13 member. But now, she told Deras, MS-13 members were threatening her 15-year-old boy, who joined a rival gang.
Deras assured her he would talk to the MS-13 members. But he also said he needed to speak to her son. A short while later, Deras was back at his office, with the boy seated at the edge of his desk. He asked the boy why he joined a gang.
All his friends are gang members, he answered.
Deras played a video dramatizing the murder of Rodriguez's son. Afterward, he pointed to photos of stern-faced gang members and talked about the price of gang membership.
"All these guys are dead," Deras said. "They thought they were tough."
Deras then took the boy to his apartment, where they waited for his mother to pick him up. In an interview afterward, Carol Peña, 32, said Deras made a connection with her son. "It gave him something to think about," she said. "It impressed him what Ernesto does."
Back at the Sylmar juvenile hall, the teens are lined up on rows of stainless steel lunch benches. They remain still and focused on their guest. About half an hour has passed since Deras began.
He challenges the boys to think carefully about their futures. Take control of your destiny, he says, and you can have homes, families and good jobs.
"You're worth more than you realize," he says. "We don't want your lives manipulated by someone else."
Times staff photographer Luis Sinco contributed to this report.