‘I can’t believe how I used to live’: from gang war to peace treaties in Monterrey
Juan Pablo García was six years old when he left home and joined a street gang. Over the next 14 years he sold marijuana for a local kingpin, became the leader of his own gang and developed a heavy cocaine addiction. Like thousands of others who hustle on the dusty streets of Monterrey, Mexico’s third-biggest city, he was the product of a society that has spawned a seemingly endless cycle of violent crime.
“I grew up in a very poor neighbourhood. We didn’t even have water or basic services,” García recalls. “After my dad abandoned us I wanted to earn money on the streets to support my mum, but I ended up getting involved with gangs.”
It was only when he “found God” at the age of 20 that García managed to break the cycle, although it took another three months of homeopathy and abstinence to kick his cocaine habit. Now 42, he is helping others to escape gang life and return to school or find formal employment opportunities.
In 2011 García founded the NGO Nacidos Para Triunfar (Born to Triumph; NPT) in a bid to prevent vulnerable youths from joining street gangs and becoming foot soldiers for large predatory drug cartels. “At this time Monterrey was controlled by the cartels,” he says. “There were a lot of kidnappings and carjackings. People didn’t want to leave their homes.”
García has since brokered over a dozen truces between more than 100 street gangs that were once locked in longstanding feuds over territory and respect. Almost 400 former delinquents have graduated from NPT’s educational programme and the aim is to remove 2,000 kids from gangs in the Monterrey area.
Thirteen gangs signed a truce at a gym hall in Monterrey’s San Bernabé neighbourhood in January. A dozen police officers brandishing submachine guns kept watch beneath the broken streetlights outside as 300 adolescents filed in wearing baseball caps, chains and baggy jeans.
Each gang leader had to sign the treaty and embrace their rivals but the pact almost broke down when one pair exchanged overly aggressive fist bumps. A tense standoff ensued but García persuaded them to make up. Celebrations followed, with the attendees sharing tacos and soft drinks before skanking together to live vallenato music.
Eduardo, a 16-year-old member of the TFP gang, one of the approximately 2,400 gangs in the city, hopes the truce will bring lasting peace. “We fight over things that aren’t worth it. I’ve seen stabbings and the crazier guys even pull out pistols or machetes,” he says. “It would be great if the gangs stop fighting but these rivalries go back many years. It’s hard to let your guard down but this foundation is really helping us.”
Eduardo’s girlfriend, Alexa, joined his gang last year. She was only 11 when she started drinking and smoking marijuana but now hopes for a brighter future. “I’m about to finish high school,” she says shyly. “I’d like to go to university and become a family lawyer.”