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Tattoo Removal Gives New Hope to Ex-Gang Members

Mennonite Central Committee
Friday, 9 March 2001

CHAMELECON, Honduras -- Marvin, a 21-year-old Honduran, got two tattoos on his upper right arm three years ago. This morning, at a clinic in this town outside San Pedro Sula, he is getting them burned off. He betrays no pain as the nurse injects him repeatedly with anesthetic beneath the tattoos and his skin swells.

One tattoo is a cross, which Marvin says he got for no particular reason. The other is the name "Julia." Julia is no longer his girlfriend, but that's not why he is removing the tattoos -- instead, he says they make it hard to find work. Nearly all young Hondurans who have tattoos are, or have been, members of gangs, and employers do not like to hire young people with such backgrounds.

A Honduran Mennonite organization called Red de Paz y Justicia, the Peace and Justice Network, is borrowing this tattoo-removal machine, the only one in Honduras, for use in its own ministry to gang members. The Network serves youth who are in gangs, have recently dropped out of gangs, or are trying to keep from joining them.

Marvin's tattoos do not show any specific gang affiliation, and he does not volunteer any information about whether he belongs to one. Two other young men at the clinic are not so shy -- they remove their t-shirts to display large "MS" logos tattooed in block letters across their backs. This identifies them as member of Mara Salvatrucha, one of the largest gangs in Honduras.

These tattoos are not visible when the two young men are fully clothed, but they say employers will still find the tattoos. Applicants are often asked to disrobe during job interviews so employers can inspect them for tattoos. They hope to work in maquilas (factories) outside San Pedro.

Gangs, known locally as "maras," are a severe problem in Honduras. A government agency estimates that 35,000 gang members and "sympathizers" live in and around the city of San Pedro Sula alone. The area has four to five murders a day, most of which are gang-related.

The clinic where tattoos are removed was established by Maryknoll priest David LaBuda. With the advice of two physicians from the United States, Maryknoll purchased the tattoo removal machine, which uses infrared light to disintegrate skin cells that hold tattoo ink.

Ricardo Torres, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker who collaborated with the Peace and Justice Network until his term ended in late 2000, and Denis Mata, an employee of the Network, heard about the tattoo removal program from one of the youth they worked with. Torres contacted LaBuda, and the priest offered the Network use of the machine during the clinic's off-hours.

Torres and Mata learned how to use the machine, and the Network recruited two nurses to bandage and treat the burns. Now that Torres has completed his term, MCC is searching for another person to fill his position.
Edwin Hernandez, 20, an ex-member of the Vatos Locos gang, is a participant in the Peace and Justice Network program. He pulls up his shirt to show a five-inch-high "VL" tattoo on his abdomen. He has others on his arms and says that having the tattoos removed is more painful than getting them in the first place. But he is glad to have left the gang behind: "The gang offers nothing, only bad living and death," he says.

Mata explains that the Network concentrates on re-integrating ex-gang members into society through employment, community service and tattoo removal; religious instruction; and a sports program.

"The community service is one of the most important components," Mata says. "People distrust former gang members, but by cleaning the streets or other such work we gain their respect. And without the tattoos, the youth can start over."

In the clinic, new patients receive an orientation from Suyapa Bonilla, a nurse who volunteers full-time there and owns a pharmacy next door. She explained the process to Marvin, the two Salvatrucha members, and five other youth. Bonilla says the removal program is so popular that she is booked with appointments for the next five months.

As Bonilla repeatedly presses the infrared light wand down on the thigh of a young woman with tattoos of a yin-yang symbol and a checkered rectangle, she says the smallest tattoos need three treatments to be removed completely. Larger tattoos take several more, requiring up to a year.

For more information, or to contact Mennonite Central Committee, see their website at:

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