PICTURE the scene: Peer pressure is great. You want to fit in. Your pals are in a gang. The lure of the loyalty and lifestyle is uppermost in your mind.

But when you’re in, the risk of serious crime and violence becomes the norm. In fact, you could even become the “violent weapon” in gang culture.

Dare you resist?

For many, this is a sad reality which can go on to shape their future of a life in the murky crime underworld of south Essex.

One man who became embroiled in gang culture is James (not his real name) who has told how he freed himself from the shackles of a gang to turn his life around.

James revealed he became the “violent weapon” of the gang after being lured in while attending a Southend school.

He became very close to a friend and a sense of loyalty saw him join a gang.

He claims his friend’s behaviour changed prior to joining a gang, but they had become used to protecting each other.

James said: “My role in the gang was more to be the muscle of the group.

“I was known to be a fierce short-tempered person who had no problems in fights. Therefore I was asked many times to go with the boys to drop offs and attend places if things were about to kick off, I was used as a violent weapon when needed.”

Thankfully for James, he was able to avoid a life of crime thanks to the work of Southend Council’s children’s services team and Essex Police.

He said: “I decided my life and potential within sports was much more valuable to me than having a name on the streets and being feared by many.

“I realised that life has more to give rather than just violence and money.

“My worker was a very big help in taking me out of the situation I was in and still to this day helps to look out for me and keeps an eye on me.”

He added: “Essex Police did help me in the sense that they gave me more space than they had to.

“That helped me to understand that there was still a chance of a way out for me.

“I didn’t feel they were coming for me, but understood what I was going through.”

James was sent out of the area to distance himself from his gang life.

James has since returned to Southend.

Although he knows there is still work to be done on his character, he is urging young gang members to seek a way out.

He said: “For young gang members in similar situations, I would advise them to think of their close friends and family. What would happen to them if you were to die or go to jail?

“Younger people involved in gangs should try hard to see that they have more to offer than just violence. Everyone has a successful route in life. It’s just about finding the right one for you.”