In 2002, the Honduran government passed a zero-tolerance legislation in an attempt to limit the gang-related activity controlling their cities. As a result of this legislation, many gang members were taken off the streets, including some of their key leaders and many loyal followers. However, it did not take long for the gang leaders to find a loophole in the legislation that would allow them to retain control.
Gangs started recruiting minors to carry out their operations because minors have less severe penalties under the law.
Therefore, teenagers are often sought out to be banderas, or lookouts, and are on the streets collecting payments owed to the gangs. Source: “Gangs in Honduras” by Insight Crime, April 2016.
By joining one of the gangs in his city, Santos would only have to get his hands a little dirty to make much more money than selling fish. He would also build rapport with some of the most influential gang leaders in the city, which would ensure that he and his family are left alone. But as a Christian, Santos believes that living his life as Jesus would is more fulfilling than settling for an existence filled with easy luxuries and temporary satisfaction.
“I am more than sure that I am living the way I need to. All that I have is from God.”
Santos has been approached by gangs many times with this opportunity, and he is aware of the dangers associated with refusing to cooperate with them. It was not too long ago that a friend from his neighborhood disappeared after refusing a gang recruiter. His body was found a few days later.
Yet Santos’ answer is always the same: “I am a Christian,” he says, which communicates to gang members that they should not waste their time trying to recruit him. He is secure in who he is and knows that he was created to do more than take the easy way out. “I am more than sure that I am living the way I need to. All that I have is from God.”
It is this kind of purpose that drives Santos to stay involved at his Hope Center, so that he can be connected to both adults and other teens who want to live their lives with the same intentionality. Santos sees his attendance at the Hope Center as a privilege; it allows him to learn about God and His plan for his life from older, wiser people. If it were not for sponsorship and the opportunities it has presented him to receive tutoring and a safe place to grow, it is likely he would be working for a gang right now. Instead, someday soon, Santos himself will be a mentor and a facilitator for children at the Hope Center who face the same daily temptations and struggles. “I see these kids on the street, and I think I can do something for them.”
According to Honduras Country Director, Tony Duron, Tegucigalpa gangs respect church-going Christians because they are investing in the community. “The gangs have a code of honor; they respect people who are bringing benefits into the community. If their kids are receiving a meal, school supplies, or an education, and their kids are being brought up in a good way, they have a lot of respect for that. We have had cases where even the kids of the gang members themselves attend the Hope Centers. The kids go back home and they talk about what they do at the center and how they get help. The gang members really value that.”
Kenya, the director of Santos’ Hope Center in Tegucigalpa, has seen this passion grow inside him over the eight years she has known him. “The decision that he has made to stay close to God—that’s one thing that is noticeable in Santos. It even challenges me to be closer to God.”
Like all 17-year-olds, Santos comes face to face with choices that will define his future. He is constantly challenged by the question, “Which path will you take?” Whether it is a decision about following a dangerous crowd for easy money, or a decision between sleeping in or waking up at 5 a.m. to read God’s Word, Santos knows that each choice he makes further solidifies in him the identity that God has instilled in his heart. Like building blocks, one positive choice after another are creating a solid foundation for his future. And he knows that only one weak spot in the foundation could destroy what he has built so far.
“I always tell him, ‘Santos, today you are one of the leaders here in the center, but tomorrow, you will be a leader of much greater things as long as you stay close to God.” – Kenya
So, Santos continues to live one day at a time, asking God for what he needs each morning to bring him through the trials. From his continued discipline and perseverance, Santos knows that the Lord will create for him a better life than the gangs could ever offer—and he can encourage others to pursue the same.