Imagine living a life where you’re being threatened every second. In this life, everyone is meant to fend for themselves. Walking through this life means fiery bullets are raining around you almost every time you step out of your home. Crime is your daily bread, otherwise, you’d go hungry. It’s often unbearable, but it’s the life you’ve been dealt. At least up until that moment. Sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie, right? Well, it’s not. This was Anibal Santana Merced’s reality at some point before he was given a second chance.
Anibal Santana Merced is now a reputable author, having written six books, including Tres Heridas. Though he’s relishing a safe and honorable life now, it wasn’t always this way. Before choosing the path he’s on now, he had been a notorious gang leader in Camarones, a small neighborhood (or barrio) in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. All his knowledge was based on the world of crime and violence, which didn’t benefit him much. This led him to be sentenced to 262 years in prison at the mere age of 17.
During his childhood, Santana Merced endured an environment that shouldn’t have to be experienced by anyone, let alone a child. He first witnessed violence at home when his alcoholic father would physically abuse his mother in front of him and his siblings as well. It was difficult to watch, but he was too young to protect his mother. Oftentimes, he was also physically abused by his father, leaving him with bruises all over his body, including his face. He felt helpless. Nevertheless, this was home for him. As he grew older, he saw how his father’s alcohol addiction affected the household more and more. He recalls going to sleep without eating many times because his father decided it was more important to drink than to feed his family. But, one day he felt he had enough of the living conditions he was being exposed to, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. That is when he entered the dark chapter of his life.
Feeling tired of the constant abuse and hunger, Santana Merced ended up trying to find his place in the streets at age 11. Unfortunately, this was all he felt he could master at that time, especially since this was what greeted him as he opened the doors to his house. So, he headed over to the gang leaders of the streets and asked them for a job. Unsurprisingly, the gang leaders gave him something to do, despite the fact that he was just a child. His first task was to conduct a robbery, but being a child and inexperienced in regards to anything pertaining to crime, he immediately got caught by the authorities.
After being caught from the failed robbery, Santana Merced was taken into a juvenile detention center. He was sentenced to two and a half years. However, he was sent home on probation after six months of good conduct. That’s where things worsened for him. Being that his parents had separated, the judge needed one parent to take full custody of him. Though he pleaded to be placed with his mother, the judge ruled that his father was to be the one with full custody. The judge justified their ruling by saying that only a father could discipline a son properly and keep him out of danger (a machista mindset, indeed). He knew living with his father would only bring him more misery, so he decided to run away from his home indefinitely. This was the first time he became a fugitive.
Over the next couple of years, he submerged himself deeper into the world of crime. He dropped out of school (middle school) and accepted the only life he felt he could lead. By the age of 14, he had become a gang leader and had an organization of over 48 gang members.
From then on, he was in and out of juvenile detention centers, always managing to flee from them. Crime and blood had swallowed his entire life and there was no one around telling him to stop. His parents disregarded whatever he was going through and the friends he had made were in his same predicament. There seemed to be no other way to live in his mind. He had everything in control, or so he thought.
Things took a sour turn when he mistakenly robbed the wrong house one day. He had been tipped off about a house that had thousands of dollars, so he went into it with his team. However, they hadn’t realized this was the house of a very infamous drug lord in Puerto Rico. Robbing him was basically setting their death sentence. Shortly after that attack, Santana Merced was not only being searched for by the authorities, but by all the drug lords in Puerto Rico. Without a doubt, he had bitten off more than he could’ve ever handled.
However, after years of being one of the most recognized criminals of Puerto Rico, he was finally caught. They initially gave him a sentence of 262 years. At first, this didn’t devastate him, but once his daughter was born a few months after, his perception changed. He couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to be able to take her to her first day of school, or hear her call him “daddy,” or just witness any of her moments. This is when he knew he had to change his mentality and ultimately, his lifestyle.
Even though he was sentenced to spend his entire life in prison, he had hope. He started educating himself. He read anything he could and taught himself to write. In the process, he wrote to the courts in the hopes that his sentence could be decreased. He tried this for eight years until he was acknowledged. Finally, his sentence was lowered to 51 years. His education and perseverance had helped him with this outcome.
After teaching himself how to perfect his writing, he would write elaborate letters to his daughter. These letters kept him alive and feeling hopeful for a different future. He understood he had chosen the wrong path in his earlier life and he wanted to do something about it.
As life would have it, he was selected one day to participate in a campaign created by the Department of Corrections in Puerto Rico. In this campaign, they’d have prisoners send encouraging tweets to the youth by allowing them to use technology under supervision. The program was called #siguemeparaquenomesigas or #follow2unfollow. Shortly after, many people started learning his story and his early onset struggles, further humanizing him and allowing him to safely step back into society. By this time, over a decade had transpired and his shadow didn’t reflect the man (teen is more like it) that he used to be.
Somewhere along the way, the stars aligned, and he was able to feel the breeze of freedom again. On December of 2016, he was pardoned by Puerto Rico’s former governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, and then again on August of 2019 by Ricardo Rosselló.
After serving 15 long years in prison (where ten of those years were served in maximum detention), he was granted freedom. He had proven himself to the system, but more importantly, to himself. He had gotten a second chance — and that’s only because for the first time in his life, he had people believing in him.
We had the opportunity to speak to Anibal Santana Merced recently. He is poised, well-spoken, and filled with hope for the youth. The following are a few of Anibal’s thoughts, which he hopes can be used to encourage Latinos, Latinas, or anyone else for that matter, to avoid the streets.
Anibal, you were just a child when you began experiencing difficult times. There was no one you could’ve spoken to about this at that time?
As much as I wished I had someone to talk to at that age, I didn’t. What concerns me the most is that some of our neighbors were police officers, but they never came over when they heard the wails of my mother. They didn’t even try to speak to me when they’d see me going to school badly bruised and dirty. I was alone and I thought that was how it had to be. My teachers didn’t question my appearance. Everyone just ignored the signs, I suppose.
Do you think things would’ve been different if some of these people would’ve reached out to you when you were a child?
Oh, absolutely. I barely had parents, so I was in definite need of guidance from anyone. I do believe things would’ve been completely different if I would’ve had someone guiding me or at least someone that showed concern for me when I was a child. I don’t think any child would want to choose crime as their first career.
Do you regret anything you’ve ever done?
Of course, I do. I missed the opportunity to pursue my dream career as a boxer. I loved that sport so much. I also wouldn’t have missed my daughter’s vital years if I had gone into crime. I wouldn’t have lost precious time of my life in prison, either. Who knows. I might’ve even stumbled upon the fact that I always loved literature and writing earlier in my life.
Talking about literature, which author changed your life?
Well, while I was in prison, I was able to get my hands on The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and let me tell you, he taught me what freedom was. As I devoured the pages of his book, I was no longer in a hot prison cell. Instead, I was in the world he had created and I lived it through the imagery he portrayed within his writing. After that, I yearned to read anything from Coelho, or anyone for that matter. Reading was my escape, reading allowed me to taste freedom.
I love that. Reading is truly magical. Now, I see that you have published six books. That’s impressive. How’d you do that?
It was thanks to the people who started believing in me, really. I had a social worker who believed in me and would bring me books to read. I also had this one correctional officer who also treated me kindly (one out of dozens I encountered). Then, some of the members of the Twitter campaign!also encouraged me to continue writing, so I did. I published a few [books] from jail actually. I felt that if I wasn’t going to be free, I at least would let my words experience freedom. However, thanks to all the blessings I’ve received, I was also able to publish a few books once I was out of jail.
What are the titles of these books?
Okay. I’m going to list them in the order that I’ve published them. Reflexiones, Desde Adentro, A Puño y Letra, Consejos Para Un Mundo Menos Inseguro, Presagio, and my latest, Tres Heridas. They’re all in Spanish at the moment, but I’m working on getting them translated soon.
So, are you just an author?
*laughs* I do a lot more now that I’ve been given the opportunity. I am now a business owner — I own 5115. I’m a speaker or lecturer at any conference that will have me as well. I’m also currently in the negotiating process with Hollywood directors to create a Netflix series based on my life story. So, I have my plate full and I’m really grateful for that.
I’m so proud of your achievements. I guess there isn’t any excuse for people not to change. Now, before we leave, are there any words of encouragement you’d like to leave the world?
It doesn’t matter how unattainable your dream or goal may be, don’t ever give up. I’ve learned that almost nothing is impossible and that there is always a way. Go after it. Also, learn to give people second chances, even those with grand mistakes. You never know if that second chance is all they need to finally shine.
Anibal Santana Merced is a true testament that anything is possible, including change. It goes to show you that education can sometimes be the key to a different life. I know it may sometimes seem like the world is against you, but sometimes that same world will help you up. You can purchase all his books at anibalsantana.com and on Amazon.