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LightBox presents an exclusive look at an interactive, narrative documentary about gang violence in Guatemala told through the story of Alma, a young former gang member.

“In an isolated house, there was a girl older than me. Blond, begging to be spared…my whole body was telling me not to, but in the end I killed her. I knew I would get killed myself is I did not obey.” —Alma

Alma was only 15 years old the first time she took a life. As a member of one of the most violent gangs in Guatemala, the Mara 18, Alma spent eight years of her young life in a world ruled by violence. After a brutal beating caused her to suffer a miscarriage, Alma had enough, but her effort to leave the gang was met with an assassination attempt that left her a paraplegic. Today, at 26, Alma hopes to help stop the kind of violence that ruled her life for so long.

Gang violence is an enormous problem in Guatemala—a country of just 14 million people with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Alma’s story is indicative of a pattern that has affected a generation of disenfranchised youth in her country. She grew up in a cardboard and plastic shack in one of the most dangerous slums in Guatemala City. With a largely absent mother and an alcoholic father, gang life appealed to a 15-year-old girl looking for protection and comfort.

“I feel I have never received love from anyone,” Alma said. “I looked for another family in a gang, in which all members were like me, undergoing lack of love…for the first time in my life I felt loved and respected. ”

Miquel Dewever-Plana—Agence VU

At the age of 22, Alma told her “homies” (the members of her gang) that she wanted to leave. The retaliation came on the same day when two of them attempted to murder her. She survived, but is now paraplegic.

In 2008, Alma met photographer Miquel Dewever-Plana, who has been photographing the violence in Guatemala since 2007. Intrigued by Alma’s beauty and candor, amid such a cruel environment, Plana stayed in touch with the young woman, eventually realizing her story could be a powerful way-in to explain the larger tale of violence in Guatemala.

“I became convinced that her intelligence and forceful nature made her the icon I was looking for,” Plana said in an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne. “She was the key to understanding the most secretive twists and turns of the gang phenomenon.”

After a year-and-a-half of consideration, Alma agreed to collaborate with Plana and writer Isabelle Fougere. Her story is at the center of a new, multi-platform project centered around an interactive web documentary that presents Alma’s narration in a straight-forward confessional format. Plana’s photographs of her Guatemalan neighborhood and its gangs help to visualize the violent world in which she lived and powerful drawings by Hugues Micol illustrate troubling scenes from Alma’s life.

Working with a team of designers at the French creative studio Upian, Plana and Fougere, say they intended to create a final product—with a sensitive and innovative approach to a narrative— that would be interactive and accessible. The final product, which took two years to develop, is incredibly in-depth—allowing its audience to explore the story through the innovative web piece, two books and a film, all available in four languages. Supplemental materials were also designed for classroom use.

“This combination of media communicates Alma’s reality in the most effective way,” Plana said. “The web documentary was designed to inform young people about the dangers of gang life. That was my ultimate goal.”

Plana and Fougere recognize the confusing emotions that came as their relationship with Alma developed. “I see Alma as a friend,” Plana said. “But I never forget what she did, and it is impossible for me to justify her deeds.”

Plana has worked and studied in Guatemala’s since 1995 and has documented the country’s gang violence since 2007. It was this experience—which included extensive interviews with mareros in prison—that prepared him to understand and contextualize Alma’s situation.

Despite the risk of exposure and the discomfort of reliving such painful experiences, for Alma, the project was an opportunity to bear witness to her past and to attempt to prevent other youth from choosing the same fate.

“It was very painful for Alma to talk without feeling judged, to empty her haunted conscience of all these gruesome memories and guilt,” Fougere said. “This web-documentary is her path to redemption.”

Watching Alma speak on screen, it is difficult to connect the words with the woman. Soft-spoken, with long black hair and soft features, Alma slowly describes in brutal detail taking the life of another woman and enduring beatings at the hands of her “homies.” But it is precisely in this disconnect that the power of this project lies—it emphasizes that Guatemala’s gang violence is not the result of a few crazed individuals, but a tragic consequence of social problems so endemic that they can turn a young girl into a brutal criminal.

“Alma’s extremely violent story seemed emblematic of the desperation of youths from shanty town, totally abandoned by a society rife with corruption and impunity,” said Fougere. “[she is] Both victim and perpetrator of this endemic violence.”

Today, Alma lives a quiet life. Confined to a wheelchair, she works as a gift-wrapper  in a shop and lives with her boyfriend, Wilson, in a rented room. Further retaliation from her former gang is a constant threat, but she focuses on her dream of going to college to study psychology.

“I hope that [one]day I have the means to help these young people fascinated by the world of gangs,” she said. “And to finally break this chain of violence which only leads to a certain death.”

Miquel Dewever-Plana is a photographer represented by VU’. See more of his work here.

Isabelle Fougere is a French journalist, writer and director focused on human rights.

Alma: A Tale of Violence was released on arte.tv on Oct. 25, 2012. It was produced by Upian, a French creative studio that has won numerous awards for their web documentaries including First Prize in World Press Photo 2011.

All quotes by Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougere are from an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne, which is a component of the Alma project.

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“There has never been a shortage of bereaved mothers in the sprawling, violent Caracas barrio known as Catia,” writes correspondent Tim Padgett in last week’s issue of TIME International. Caracas, he notes, usually suffers some 50 homicides a week, making it one of the world’s deadliest capitals. As many as a third of them occur in Catia, where gunmen even use hillside garbage chutes to more efficiently dispose of corpses. Few of the killers are ever prosecuted.

The black-and-white photographs of Oscar B. Castillo, a Caracas-based photojournalist, accompany Padgett’s bleak dispatch. Documenting the violence of the barrio put Castillo at immense risk—from both gang members and the police.

“I felt safer when I was with the gangs than when I hung around the city by myself,” he told TIME. Although never far from the shadow of gratuitous violence, Castillo acknowledges that codes of respect and solidarity run deeply through the community.

“The people took care of me and protected me in risky situations,” he said. “When I told one of the guys involved in gang violence about the story, he told me to talk about their bad situation…to tell the kids that inside gang life, there’s no life at all.”

Castillo began photographing the street gangs of Caracas almost three years ago. Since then, he’s endeavored to use his photography as a way to explain to outsiders the complex layers of life in Catia.

“I would like to share a more complete and sincere vision of this moment in Venezuelan history. I am focused on this because it is my hometown, my country, my family—it is my people that are wounding and killing each other.”

Oscar B. Castillo is a member of the Fractures Photo Collective. View more of his work on FracturesPhoto.com.

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The first time Lourdes Jeannette entered her uncle’s house as an adult, she held a camera. For many years she refused to visit her mother’s brother – a man who is the leader of the Piru West Tampa Bloods. She disapproved of his activity and chose to ignore that aspect of her family’s life. But when her two younger brothers started hanging around with his crew, she knew she had to pay closer attention.

Still when she first flew down to Tampa to photograph some members of her uncle’s set of the Bloods, she had no intention of putting her family at the center of her study. In fact, much of Jeannette’s career seems like it could be seen as, if not accidental, guided by intuition and circumstance. After several years working as a manager of an interior design firm, she knew she needed a dramatic change. A friend praised her casual phone camera shots and suggested she pursue something in the arts. She decided to study photography in earnest, gaining a spot at the International Center for Photography’s general studies program. When it came time to select her thesis project, Jeannette soon turned toward gang culture. In retrospect, she wonders if she wanted to understand it better, herself: What was this phenomenon that gripped so many members of her family?

She found a young member of her uncle’s crew who was willing to be trailed and photographed — and to whom she was not related — but when he got cold feet, Jeannette decided to persevere with the project. Asking her uncle’s permission to hang around and shoot was tense, but she says that her desire to truly understand the motivation for her uncle’s gang involvement trumped her nerves.

“He truly saw it as a matter of protection for his family,” she explains. The two now enjoy a close relationship. Likewise, spending so much time with her two brothers has changed the dynamic of their relationship. “They aren’t just my kid brothers anymore,” she says. “They’re working with me, and I rely on them.”

Soon, Jeannette was spending weeks at a time shadowing events like ‘jumping in’ ceremonies or trailing the gang members to parties, nightclubs and business transactions. She became a regular at “The Trap” — a house where gang members relax, unmolested by the demands of families and day jobs. Before she knew it, she was a fixture of the organization with unfettered access.

The relationship strengthening was an important part of the project, but Jeannette saw an artistic progression that was just as profound. “I can see my improvement over the months — getting more comfortable getting close, putting myself in the middle of things,” she says, pointing to an intimate portrait of a young female cousin getting ready for a party with friends in her bedroom. In making her family the subject of her portrait, Jeannette not only grew closer to them, she also found her artistic vision.

The project is by no means over. Jeanette will continue documenting the culture, especially now that she has formed relationships with several female members of the gang. She hopes to deepen her understanding of gang culture through the experience of the women who marry, join or are born into the crew.

Lourdes Jeannette is a New York based photographer. She managed an interior design company before pursuing a career in photography at the International Center of Photography. See more of her work here.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM

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The people I’ve photographed in this series are all former gang members—many of whom spent time incarcerated—before walking through the doors of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention organization in Los Angeles. It’s a place takes people in and sees the potential in them, when many others do not. In shooting and showing this project, I hope I can help everyone can see the subjects as humans trying to better themselves.

The style in which I’ve photographed them will draw comparisons to a mug shot. Almost all of these people have been arrested and had a mug shot taken. I’ve flipped that idea and made a more beautiful version of an ugly picture from their past. Just like what the subjects themselves are trying to do with their own lives.

Adam Amengual is a Los Angeles-based portrait photographer. For more information on Homeboy Industries click here.

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A two part recording of a “60 Minutes” segment aired in 1978 with Dan Rather on the scene with some of the gangs of East Los Angeles. This is probably the first time that the West Coast gang culture recieved in depth exposure on national TV.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGVXzsTf-U0

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