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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 4, 2006

Reality TV used to reshape lives

By Juan Carlos Llorca
Associated Press

Former Central American gang members, from left, Marcos, "El bibliotecario," Sergio, Luis and Estuardo prayed after the inauguration of their small business yesterday as part of a reality show in Guatemala City. The series will air there next month.

MOISES CASTILLO | Associated Press

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GUATEMALA CITY This gang-plagued Central American nation has found a new twist on reality television, putting wayward youths in a house and filming as community leaders turn them into small-business owners.

Yesterday, 10 former gang members inaugurated the fruits of their efforts: a car wash and shoe repair shop. The producers of the show, scheduled to air for a week in March, hope it will serve as inspiration for other gang members looking for a way to turn their lives around.

The five-episode reality show, dubbed "Challenge 10: Peace for the Ex," was sponsored by area businesses and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

Gangs have flourished in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras since the 1990s, when the United States began mass deportations of young Central American immigrants convicted of crimes.

Gang members now rule much of the region through fear by extorting money from business owners, forcing residents of poor neighborhoods to pay protection fees and slaughtering their enemies sometimes leaving headless bodies in public places.

The three nations have tried to crack down on gang activity by strengthening anti-gang laws and throwing young members in jail. But recently many people including new Honduran President Manuel Zelaya have said that gang members must be rehabilitated and given opportunities to turn their lives around.

Yesterday, former gang member Marcos Perez, 26, said he couldn't get a job after he was deported a year ago to Guatemala after serving nearly three years in jail in the United States for selling drugs.

Perez, who left Guatemala at the age of 3 and later grew up in North Hollywood, Calif., said employers refused to hire him because of his gang tattoos.

But yesterday, as he washed and waxed cars at his new business with four other former gang members, he said he was proud, "not just for myself, but for those that are down, that are in prison and lost and want to take that step, to show them that there's another way out."

Viewers next month will witness how the 10 former gangsters lived for two weeks in the same house, where volunteers taught them basic skills in accounting, customer service, human resources, sales, marketing, and motivation.

Both groups received 25,000 Quetzales ($3,200) for startup costs and additional help getting started. They settled on the car wash and shoe repair businesses because they felt they fit their skills the best.

As of yesterday, however, they are mostly on their own, although they can still go back to their mentors for advice.

The gang members participating in the show already had abandoned gang life, some by joining an evangelical church. Under gang rules, religion and death are the only legitimate ways to get out of gangs.

Carlos Zuniga, president of Guatemala's usually conservative agricultural association, sponsored five of the gang members for the reality show.

"I'm not the same person I was (before the show) and I want this change that I experienced to reach other Guate-malans," Zuniga said.

Sergio Gutierrez, who will be in charge of the car wash, knows that running a business will be harder than the two-week taping.

"Now ... is when the hard part will come," Gutierrez said. "We have to make the business work, but I know if we trust in God, he will help us."