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Gangs and the Dominican Republic
Regardless, gang membership is for life, with only one exception. In the Dominican Republic, if a former member wants to leave a gang, he can join a church organization, or “meterse en la iglesia.” This simple act of converting to a life of faith can be the only way of successfully leaving the gang. Some former members do it as a calling, while other former members, fed up with the lifestyle they’ve been leading, go to the church regardless of whether they agree with the concept of religion.

Within the gang lifestyle there is an intricate and organized hierarchical structure. There is usually a gang leader, followed by a group of “deputies,” in descending rank. These deputies organize all gang activities, such as gang initiations, petty crimes, and they decide where to start their next fight and with whom.

These activities, especially initiations, are a vital but brutal part of gang life. These activities assert the gang’s hierarchical structure, but they also break down potential members and make them understand that the gang is in effect all they have.

Gang initiations can consist of a range of violent acts. In some cases, in order to be part of a gang, members are ‘jumped in,’ or are beaten by other gang members. Beating on a perspective new member is done to test a member’s dedication to his new gang, and to see how much he can put up with. More extreme ways of joining a gang are when a prospective member is asked to rob, kill, or rape in order to gain entry into the gang.

In recent years gang initiations in Santo Domingo have taken a drastic and more violent turn. Stoplight assaults have become one of the most common and dangerous activities within the culture of gang initiations. While at a stoplight, a car filled with gang members will flash their high beams. If the vehicle they were flashing at reciprocates, the gang members will pursue the vehicle and attack the driver.

Although it is an unfair and almost stereotypical assessment, many gang members sport the hip hop style of dress, which is extremely common and popular within the impoverished neighborhoods where they live. What has become an interesting distinguishing characteristic among many youth gang members in recent years is their desire to sport a more ‘preppie’ style of dress, like polo shirts, in order to fit in at certain events, in order not to be profiled before potential assaults. Also extremely common are tattoos representing their gang affiliations. Tattoos on their necks, arms or chest can symbolize sympathy for, or affiliation to a gang. And very common among many gang members is a gap in their mouths, where many are missing their front two teeth. This can symbolize either the gang member’s initiation, a symbol of gang member’s time in jail, or the heavy drug consumption.

Part of gang life also consists of protecting a “set,” or a gang’s turf. This turf may consist of just a few blocks, or a whole section of the city. Some examples of a gang’s turf in Santo Domingo can be the areas surrounding a shopping mall, or the mall itself. Younger gang members will parade around a mall, for example, looking for prospective victims, or looking to start a fight. These gang members usually never travel alone, and rarely do they fight alone, rather they terrorize as a unit. In most cases one member will provoke a confrontation or prepare a potential victim for an attack, and fellow members will appear out of nowhere to help out. Youth gangs in the city have also been known to go uninvited to parties, looking to cause trouble in this very way.

Within a gang’s turf, the rules that apply to normal society don’t apply to gang members - they make their own rules. One of the most highly publicized gang stories proved this very same detail, and made Dominicans realize the depth and seriousness of gang life in Santo Domingo.

In 2004, after the death of a reputed gang leader and drug trafficker, members of his gang decided to give him a burial “fit for a hero.” During funeral proceedings he was buried with the Dominican flag on his casket, an honor usually only granted to national heroes, and people who have given their lives for their country. But there was little that the police was able to do. The police rarely enter the sector of the city where the burial took place, and if they do it is at their own risk.

Drugs are also a large part of life in Dominican gang culture. Although Dominicans are viewed in the American, and maybe the international eye, as drug kingpins, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, Dominicans and the Dominican Republic are used as pawns in the international drug trade, which these gang members not only aid, but at times become victims. Though there are large drug related cartels doing illegal business in the Dominican Republic, the country is used mainly as a stopping-off point en route to the US, Europe, and the Lesser Antilles.

Many of these drug cartels are controlled in countries such as Colombia, without any real economic benefits ever trickling down to the youths who risk their lives selling the drugs.

Instead, many of the street youth in Santo Domingo deal in small quantities, in order to “make ends meet,” and usually opt for using low quality marijuana, and low quality narcotics like cocaine, in order to get high. But the most common drugs taken by these gang members aren’t the least dangerous, but the most common. Shoe polish, chemical fumes or other inhalants have become the drugs of choice among many street youth, not only because of their availability, but also because of their low cost.

In neighborhoods like Guaricano, La Cienaga and Capotillo, gangs are more powerful than even the police, and although they might not be respected by all, they are at the very least feared. The reasons for joining a gang are numerous, and though the reasoning given by gang members for their participation can be flawed, we must understand that in the reality that they have to live in, this may be the only option open to them. Furthermore, high levels of unemployment, poverty, lack of education, disenfranchisement and a lack of positive role models are continuing the cycle that today’s generation faces.
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