I was an MS-13 gang member. Here’s how I got out. | Gerardo Lopez | TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Saif Alkilany
Reviewer: Bob Prottas You might have heard
about them in the news – They’d been called murderers, violent, destructive, lawbreaking and criminals. And I can tell you that a lot
of what you heard is true, because I used to be a member of MS-13. Today I’m going to tell you
why I joined the gang and how I eventually got out. But first, let me take you all the way
back to the beginning. Picture this: El Salvador, the 1980s, a brutally violent civil war; military soldiers kicking in front doors in the middle of the night; kids hiding, shaking
underneath their beds as they heard the sounds
of boots approaching; mothers laying in puddles
of their own blood watching their children get taken away and forced to join the war. Thousands of Salvadorean refugees
poured into the United States desperate for a better life. One of those refugees
was a little boy named Nelson. He and his family landed
in a ghetto of Los Angeles. While his parents
worked multiple jobs to earn a living, Nelson was alone a lot in a new country, trying to adapt to new customs,
and a new language. When he and the other
Salvadorean kids went to school, they were bullied by the Chicano kids because of the different accents,
and different cultures. And one day, they had enough! They took all the violence
they’d known as kids, all the anger they built up, and they formed a group of their own: MS-13 And so, the victims of bullying
became the bullies themselves. We’ve heard that story before, haven’t we? MS-13 is the tragic outcome
of a tragic environment. In 1996 the US government
deported thousands of immigrants. One of them was Nelson. By now he was an adult, he spoke English, he wore the gangster clothing
like the Nike Cortez shoes, Dickies Pants, Panettone shirts
and head bandannas. He was full of tattoos. He didn’t fit into El Salvador’s
culture anymore, and the young Selvadorians noticed but they didn’t bully him. They were in awe of him. He looked like one of those
people from the movies: they wanted to be just like him. And that meant,
that they wanted to join MS-13. And so there you have it: a country trying to recover
and rebuild from a civil war suddenly had the first ever
gang problem on their hands and it only got worse. Now, I’m not Salvadorean. I’m part Mexican and Argentinian
and born in L.A. But the neighborhood that I grew up in
was MS-13 territory. Even as a kid in elementary school, I knew that I don’t want
to be a part of a gang. My mother worked
14-hours a day at a Sweatshop trying to make ends meet. So I was out in the streets alone a lot. One day, an MS-13 gang member
pointed a gun at my face and robbed me. So I would try to dodge them. I’d leave through the back
of my apartment building and hopped over fences
in order to avoid being seen. But that meant I would enter
another gang’s territory and they will approach me. I would have to travel miles
outside of my neighborhood in order to escape the gangs. No matter where I went, I wasn’t safe. I used to watch them
from my apartment window. One night they were in the streets
celebrating this man who had just made
his way back from El Salvador. Nelson! Remember him? He had respect, power and pride — everything that I didn’t have. I wondered what it would be
like to be him, to be revered in your own neighborhood. That night, I made a decision. I was 14 years old
and I was going to join MS-13. After I was initiated,
I felt relief instantly. I’d walk around with my head up high. Remember that theme song from Cheers
where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came? It was like that every day! But it wasn’t long before
I regretted my decision. You see, the rival gang members had
found out that I chose MS-13 over them and they were furious! I became a target overnight! But it was too late;
what was I supposed to do? It’d be like getting married in a week
and you start like: “Uh man, I mean …” (Laughter) I made a mistake! (Laughter) How do I get out of this? But you can’t; it’s not that easy! What would your friends and family say? What would your new partner do? So you stick it out! And a few weeks later, you start telling
yourself: “OK, this isn’t so bad!” I could stick this out! Months pass by and you form
a bond, a connection, and you feel you’ll do anything
for that person. I remember when I got
my first MS-13 tattoo. As that tattoo gun pierced my skin, all I could think about what the love
that I have for my gang! And then my mom was going to be
pretty furious if she found out about it. (Laughter) I couldn’t wait to show off
my new one to my homies, a bond that’ll be there for life, and when I get locked up again
I take my shirt off with pride. I made bad choices. I committed assaults and robberies that would land me in jail
for years as a juvenile. In there, I got a reputation for starting
fights with rival gang members. Every time I got out,
I gained even more respect. My homies wanted to be just like me. I felt that I owned their territory, and no rival gang was going to go
in there and disrespect it. I was willing to defend it at all costs, even if that meant me dying over it. But sometimes I asked myself: “Am I willing to spend
the rest of my life in jail?” I put my mom and grandma through a lot. When I was out of jail they stayed up
for hours lighting candles, praying that it wasn’t my dead body
laying underneath that white sheet. When I was in jail they visited me and asked me when I was going to change. I was tired … tired of seeing my family suffer, tired of going to my friends’ funerals. My life had become the tragic outcome
of a tragic environment. My blind love for MS-13 started to fade. I wanted to get out,
but I just didn’t know how. Then one night,
my whole life changed forever. I was 20 years old, out in the street, celebrating my recent jail release when Alex Sanchez, a former MS-13 gang
member that I looked up to, approached me. He told me he had started this gang
intervention group and wanted me to join. I was thrilled. Finally, I could get out. But part of me was reluctant. I had gained respect,
power and pride within the gang, and I just didn’t know
who I’d be without it again. Then I looked up at my apartment building, and standing there at the window
was my younger brother staring at me the same way that I would stare at Nelson. I knew had to try to get out. At my first meeting, I met
rival gang members and their families, and we found out
that we all felt the same. Their parents cried the same tears
as my parents did. The only thing that separated us
was the name of the gang. We learn how to express ourselves
without using drugs and violence, and the gang intervention group
took us traveling to different places to share our story and more people listened. The more we talked, the more
we felt the sense of respect, power and pride. I was able to fade away from the gang and ultimately being able to leave it. I thought that was the hard part, but we were in the midst of the Los Angeles Police Department’s
Rampart CRASH scandal. Now, you would think that a police
department would be welcoming of a gang intervention group, but they didn’t. Instead we were searched without warrants, stopped on baseless charges and beaten on our way to our
weekly gang intervention group. We had gotten out, but we were
being punished for what we had been. Finally, I had enough and I moved
to a friend’s house in Colorado for a chance of a better life. I got a degree in criminal justice. (Cheers) (Applause) I worked in youth detention facilities
as a youth counselor to continue to get kids out of gangs. I thought my gang problems
were a thing of the past. But then a few years later, I was accused of moving to Colorado
to start MS-13 criminal activities, and unlawfully arrested again; I couldn’t believe it! I was now in a federal courtroom, facing a possible 48-year sentence. For two years, I studied my case. I wrote my own court motions and defended myself in court. Finally, justice prevailed and the jailer opened up my cell door and told me that my case
had been dismissed, all of my charges have been dropped
and that I was free to go. (Cheers) (Applause) But that was two years of my life gone, punished by society for my past even though I was trying to do everything
to build a new future. We all know that, it’s important
to get kids out of gangs, but we forget that they aren’t set up
to succeed once they leave. Most people join a gang because they feel
disconnected, alone, alienated. They just want to belong,
to feel valued, to have a purpose. Looking back, is there any surprise
why I joined MS-13? My mom worked around the clock. I was alone a lot, and everybody
around me was from a gang. When I left MS-13, I had my
gang intervention group to support me. Most people are not that lucky. They are judged and punished
by society for their past and they have nowhere to turn to
and nowhere to go. Seventy percent of kids
who try to leave a gang, but don’t have another
support system in place, fail. Seventy percent. I realized that the only way to succeed in getting kids out of gangs
and keeping them out of gangs is to create an environment that’s going to support them
every step of the way. Today, I’m the executive director
of Homies Unidos, Denver, a gang violence prevention
and intervention organization. (Cheers) (Applause) We empower youth and their families
to become advocates of social change rather than agents of self-destruction. Let me give you an example. Growing up, David was always told
he was good for nothing. As a teenager, he became heavily
involved in gangs. How did he get out and stay out? First things first: we helped David realize that the sense of self-esteem
that a gang provides you is false, that you have to love yourself first; nobody else can do that for you. In talking groups, David and teens
with similar experiences discussed how their negative actions have impacted their families, their communities and each other. David began taking
responsibility for his actions. We helped him re-enroll into high school and stay focused
on his journey to graduation. And then we filled his social life
with community and activity. We went fishing and camping, to ball parks, and family fun centers. We understand that strong families
are key to violence prevention, so we invited David’s parents
to our group sessions and activities. These interactions build a mutual
understanding across generations. Finally, we helped David realize
the power in his own voice to make that difference again. He learned to organize youth groups and then lead restorative
justice conversations with people that have been
impacted by gang violence. David has since graduated
from high school, he works as an electrician,
he’s attending college and he’s a frequent guest speaker
and role model for youth in our groups. (Cheers) (Applause) These dramatic changes
in David’s life were only possible because we surrounded him
with the welcoming community that was fully invested in his success. In this way we have helped
hundreds of kids get out of gangs and stay out of gangs. (Applause) But we’re only one organization. As a society, we can all do better. When we isolate people, alienate them
and punish them for past mistakes, we are just continuing the cycle. If we want people to leave gangs
and re-enter society, then that means we have
to let them re-enter society. And that means attending school,
living down the street and having a job. Would you be willing to hire a person
with a criminal history? What about if that person
has an MS-13 tattoo on his face? People just want to belong,
to be a part of something. We are the ones
that can help them find it. Thank you. (Cheers) (Applause)

100 thoughts on “I was an MS-13 gang member. Here’s how I got out. | Gerardo Lopez | TEDxMileHigh

  1. I was born and raised in El Salvador and lived the entire civil war which ended in 1992. I think at the age of 9 or 10 you know what’s right and what’s wrong.

    I went to a predominant Mexican / Chicano High School in East LA and graduated with honors in 1996. I was bullied by my accent yes, but it was part of life. Never had the need of joining a gang nor do I have any tattoos in my body. That’s was nothing. All the credit is for my mom who raised my brother and I as a single mother and never asked for any government help.

    Joining a gang is a choice.

  2. With all do respect, the USA open the door for all salvadorans back in the 80's but sadly wi never knew what to do with such a freedom,I am forever grateful to this country, you still show how weak your mind is .GOD bless the USA.

  3. This amazing human soul just made me cry and taught me sooo much in only 16:05, may he be blessed 1000 fold for his conversion and making a positive difference for the benefit of humanity, just beautiful, it brings me tears of joy to hear these wonderful stories of transformation, an experience well learned and wisdom well taught

  4. This dude is working hard to make believe he's not guilty of the crimes he committed. He went in and he got out. I think he deserves a statute because he did nothing more than his obligation and seeks credit for it. It's like stop taking crack, so what??? Good for you.
    I had to say this, not that I don't appreciate what you do, but back where I come from I know thousands of guys like you.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story and may Allah always bless you with a lot of blessings keep up the good work thanks again Allah bless you👍☝️

  6. Mr. Lopez should be commended and recognized as a community hero…he is saving lives of many impoverished, vulnerable and scared young people. Doing amazing work for our youths…keep it up!✌😉❤

  7. So many truths here that we all can take with us and use. It's time to stop passing the buck and take responsibility for SELF now, this moment~ let the past go and forgive others and self for any harm done~ STOP LIVING IN THE PAST, PRESSING THE REWIND BUTTON REPEATING MISTAKES~ LEARN FROM THEM BECAUSE THEY WILL KEEP SHOWING YOU WHAT YOU NEED TO LEARN 😉 STOP THINKING OF THE FUTURE AND WHAT YOU HAVEN'T GOT ALREADY~ BE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE GOT, BECAUSE NO MATTER HOW LITTLE YOU THINK IT IS, I CAN GUESS ITS MORE THAN SOME OTHERS HAVE~ Always moving with the flow~ it's when we work against it that we find we have problems~ We all are Worth it~ We are never alone~ Love You because it's no body elses responsibility. It's not the things we buy in life that bring happiness, it's the gifts that are free~ FAMILY~ FRIENDS~ AND EVEN IF ITS A WALK ON YOUR OWN IN THIS REALM THERE'S ALWAYS NATURE~THERES EVEN OUR DIVINE CREATOR 😍😘🙌🏻~ THERE'S GIFTS EVERYWHERE WHEN WE START TO SEE~ LOSE FEAR AND LIFE CHANGES~ I LOVE YOU 🙌🏻💜🙌🏻🤗🌹😘

  8. The grass really is greener sometimes 🙂

    This guy deserves crazy respect for pivoting his life in such a radical way away from gangs

  9. Proud of this brother most of them in El Salvador are turning to the Lord turning their lives around
    God bless them.

  10. Pretty sure I witnessed this on scared straight.
    They are really phoning it in these days on Ted Talks. Either someone lost a bet, or somebody got some good dirt on corporate.

  11. ummmm….. Ok. So…. now Tedx is into fiction? So.. If you're an MS-13 member and you quit, I'm pretty sure they kill you… so… this guy is still alive… so… where do we go from here?

  12. This guy got into MS in the late 88 or early 90’s because it started in mid 80’s and they were Stoners. Their original initials were MSS. Their first rivals were MCS another stoner gang. Initially MSS wanted to get into MCS because they were stoners and liked heavy metal music. But MCS was not welcoming to them because they were new comers to the USA.

  13. He still talks like a gangster, never mention family life especially what his dad did when he decided to join the gang at age 14. As a father, I wouldn't accept my son joining a gang and would have moved if that was the only thing…✌

  14. A true real living proof of hard work and strength, wot a inspiration truly hats off to u my friend, it’s people like u that make a big difference, your a life changer and you should be extremely proud of wot you’ve accomplished 👍

  15. Esse u talk from the heart but u gotta be careful cause u know how it is … always some punk is gonna be there .u know what I mean bless you bro

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