Inside a county juvenile detention facility, two dozen teenagers accused of violent crimes sit before Ernesto “Satan” Deras, a veteran of the violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha. His message is simple: Give in to gang leaders or other criminals and you’ll waste away in prison – or die at an early age. Deras, 36, is a gang intervention counselor with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit.
At a time when Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has grown dramatically and captured the focus of government authorities across the U.S. and Central America, law enforcement officers, policy analysts and human rights activists agree that more programs like Deras’ that emphasize intervention, education and training are needed to counter the scourge of gangs, reports the Los Angeles Times. One expert who studies MS-13 recently warned Congress that police and immigration crackdowns alone won’t stem the growth of a gang that has up to 50,000 members in six countries.