A New Life for Luis

A Honduran teen is reformed

The Dutiful Son

In the life of Honduran teen Luis, a typical morning involves little sleeping in at his home in a mountainous community overlooking the capital Tegucigalpa with buzzards flying overhead.

Some days, he wakes early to help his stepfather haul produce in the market. On others, the dutiful son buys corn for his mother’s small tortilla business, carrying it in a heavy sack slung over his shoulder onto the bus back home.

“It’s good to go to work knowing that the money you’re earning is something you obtained from your own sweat and not from doing illicit activities,” Luis said.

The Road Luis Takes

On the road Luis takes, he passes by a sprawling cemetery — an ominous reminder of the danger he faces growing up in Honduras, a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

In a past life, this lanky 15-year-old wasn’t always so keen to help his family out. In fact, his problems ran much deeper.

Losing His Way

Luis grew up with his beloved grandparents. He began to lose his way when he moved to Tegucigalpa at age 12 to live with his mother, stepfather and two younger half-siblings.

He didn’t get along with any of them. He refused to do chores or help his brother and sister with their homework.

In his new home, he didn’t feel like anyone loved him.

He thought his stepfather Saul just wanted to order him around, to punish him. Luis didn’t obey him or pay attention to his advice. Luis and his mother Gloria didn’t understand each other, either – they’d pass the day fighting, getting into shouting matches.

“I didn’t have anyone to talk to at home. I didn’t have people who supported me.”

Violence and Deaths, Shootouts and Drugs

But what might be a normal teenage rebellious phase elsewhere took a dark turn in Luis’s new neighborhood, where gangs fought over territory. “Here, there is a lot of violence,” he said, “and many people you can’t trust.”

“All the gangs fight, and there’s violence and deaths, shootouts and drugs.”

In school, Luis was the class clown, and he gained a reputation for being the most crazy, the most likely to act without thinking. This earned him the respect of his peers. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Someone Important

Luis finally had found the acceptance that he craved. “I felt like someone important,” Luis said.

He began getting involved with drugs, playing hooky, and getting suspended for a week at time.

Afraid For His Life

Luis’s mom Gloria was terrified that he would be killed.

At her wits’ end, Gloria one day found the key to ending her family’s troubles: the USAID pilot program Proponte. The family was assigned to a counselor, Sabina, who helped Luis gradually change his attitude. At first, Luis was hesitant. “After the first meeting, I said, ‘This is stupid,’” Luis recalled.

A Better Person

But eventually, the counseling helped Luis stay away from gangs and drugs, return to school, form positive friendships, and learn to respect his family.

“Those six months for me were amazing because I changed completely,” Luis said. “I learned to change my routine for the better, to be a better person.”

“If I hadn’t joined Proponte … maybe I would be dead, or in a gang, or an assassin — killing other people.”

In family meetings, Sabina would talk about the importance of showing respect, love and support to each other. She’d remind Luis’s parents that boys and girls alike need affection, and encourage Luis to give his mom a kiss goodbye. She’d lead the family in exercises like constructing a family tree that showed the weakness or strength of each relationship by drawing one or two lines.

A Place for Learning, Fun and Distraction

One day, a friend of Luis invited him to hang out at a USAID youth outreach center.

After that first visit, Luis returned on his own several times. He learned valuable job skills – computers, appliance repair – while also having fun at the gym or playing soccer.

“I thought of it as a place to go to distract myself,” he said.

He also made new friends – ones that had a positive influence on each other.

“I feel much better about myself; before I thought I wasn’t important,” Luis said. “Now, I know I’m intelligent and I can complete my goals.”

About this story

Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere. The United States works with Central American governments to improve citizen security and rule of law and create opportunities for youth.

Adapted from a gang-reduction program in Los Angeles, USAID’s Proponte was piloted — then fully scaled — in Honduras to steer youth ages 8 to 17 away from gangs. Participants, selected through a tool that identifies risk factors such as weak parental supervision, underwent a seven-phase family-centered process.

The pilot resulted in a 77 percent drop in crime and substance abuse and 78 percent drop in antisocial tendencies. Now, the program is expanding to 800 families under Proponte Más.

Additionally, nearly 200 youth outreach centers in Central America provide a safe space to have fun, learn job skills, and avoid drugs and gangs.

While USAID programs don’t help people get out of gangs, they deter at-risk youth from joining them and provide support once they are out.

Photos and video by Thomas Cristofoletti