As the sun goes down in Matagalpa, a city nestled in the northern highlands of Nicaragua, Jairo Blanchard stands surrounded by a group of young boys, 20 or more. He has their undivided attention. Mr. Blanchard is explaining the rules for participating in this soccer league: no alcohol, no drugs, and no weapons on game day. The boys crowd in around him, eager to sign up.
The league is organized by a nonprofit called Recreación Sana (Healthy Recreation), which Blanchard started in 2000 as a way of intervening in the cycle of gang violence in Matagalpa. It offers opportunities for the city’s youths to get involved in constructive activities, such as the soccer league, while also building life skills and fostering community.
“The problem is not the youth; the problem is the system,” Blanchard says. “You have to listen to the youth.”
Gang violence is not the problem that it used to be in Matagalpa, which has a population of 150,000 and is in an area known for coffee production and a mild climate. However, 37 percent of the households fall into the category of extreme poverty, according to 2005 Census data. That puts many children at risk, and some of them get caught up in drugs and alcohol at a young age.
Before founding Recreación Sana, Blanchard himself spent several years in gangs – at home in Nicaragua as well as in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Like many gang members, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol, but by age 22, he had reached a turning point: He felt his body could no longer withstand the physical abuse of addiction, and he envied those who weren’t part of the gang world. So Blanchard decided to leave the gang lifestyle; he says he quit drugs and alcohol overnight and never went back.
Blanchard’s past as a gang member gives him credibility with the local youths, many of whom look up to him. “The kids can tell when there is someone there to help without ulterior motives,” says Amanda Ecklesdafer, director of Project Open Arms, an outreach program in Matagalpa that works with street children. “Someone that is really authentically there [for them].”
Over on the soccer field, a ball flies into a neighbor’s yard, and Blanchard has to retrieve it. He climbs into a ravine and scales a wall and then a fence before tossing the ball back to the soccer field. A crowd of boys lines the fence to watch, exclaiming in awe, “Look at him! He’s just like Spider-Man!”
Blanchard “has a very unique ability to connect with at-risk youth,” Ms. Ecklesdafer says. “That, coupled with his dedication, really makes him one of our best resources for combating youth on the street.”
Aside from the soccer league, Recreación Sana puts on a weekly radio show, holds workshops in local schools, and organizes pickup games. The group works with approximately 800 children through its various programs, Blanchard estimates.
Twenty-one-year-old Jonathan Gabriel Talavera Matamoros is one who profited by joining the soccer league. Before his involvement, he says, he did drugs. But “in the program there are certain things that help you get ahead,” he says. “How to leave vices, how to leave drugs. And that way you can benefit.”
Another 21-year-old, Yener Espinoza, adds that the league “is great because this way it’s giving opportunities to people that are alienated.”
Blanchard recounts that when he first returned to Matagalpa after deciding to change his life, his reputation as a gang member allowed him to infiltrate some of the many gangs at the time. He gained the trust of their leaders and eventually was able to bring them together for a meeting. He wanted to show them that it was possible to live side by side without violence. During the meeting, he says, he was able to start a dialogue among the gangs. He points to this as a key moment leading to the decrease in gang violence.
Today, Blanchard strives to be a good example for children. “Many leaders are hypocritical,” he says. “They say one thing and do another.” He says he tries to be a leader not by saying things, but by doing them. “You have to have a vision, an alignment; if not, you get lost,” he says.
• Berly Cordero contributed to this report.