Gangs, Shoe Bags, and Prison Reform

If you were to tell me three years ago that I’d be walking through a maximum security prison in Guatemala while breaking bread and drinking Coca Cola with the leader of one of the most dangerous gangs in the world, I probably would have said “You know, I think I’ll just stay here in California.” It’s been quite a journey, and my trips to the prison this year have been absolutely fascinating.

After walking past guards in ski masks (to make sure the prisoners don’t see their faces) and through the multiple security checkpoints, you arrive at the last gate, which is opened by the prisoners. That’s right, the gang actually runs the inside of the prison; this is where the Adelante shoe bags are screen printed. We screen print our shoe boxes in a Guatemalan women’s prison as well.

You probably have a few questions right now, two of which might be: 1. Why are you going into these prisons and speaking with the gang leaders? and 2. How on earth are you able to do this? The answers are intertwined—Adelante strives to raise the bar in what social entrepreneurship is and can accomplish, paying people well for quality craftsmanship and providing employment opportunities in areas where underemployment is rampant. We’ve had the unique opportunity to partner with Serigrafia de la Gringa, a screen printing social business that works in Guatemalan prisons to provide employment and rehabilitation services for current and former gang members. Their mission aligns closely with Adelante’s, which is why we have chosen Serigrafia de la Gringa to print our shoe bags and shoe boxes. We could not be more satisfied with the quality of screen printing we’ve gotten by working with these people.

So much of what you hear in the United States about Central America is related to the terrible violence and gangs. I do not dispute the murder rate statistics in Central American cities, but I do aim to generate awareness that these “violent” people genuinely want to change.

The work that adelante does in Guatemalan prisons allows gang members to generate income through legitimate employment, outside of trafficking or extortion. We know it is a long road to repair the damage gang life has had on society and gang members, but my discussions with the leader reflect a sincere desire for this kind of change. What inspires me is the hope that this engagement could fundamentally alter the way this gang operates, which would have enormous implications for the future. If the gang leader continues to lead with this new mindset, he might inspire those around him to change their mindsets as well, potentially “rebranding” the gang’s image altogether—moving away from extortion and towards the production of high quality goods like screen printed bags and shirts.

The word adelante means a few different things in Spanish: “go ahead,” “forward,” or “come inside.” A phrase we use frequently is seguimos adelante, which means “we keep moving forward,” even with obstacles in our way. With our work in the prisons seguimos adelante, as we push towards a better Central America.


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