God vs. gang? For some ex-gangsters in El Salvador, rehab happens at church

Rehabilitation is a challenge for El Salvador's ex-gang members, and the organizations trying to help them. But addressing the factors that bring teens into gangs – like a sense of belonging and identity – can also be key to getting them out, some groups say.

Milli Legrain
A former gang member attended a weekly gathering for prayer and to discuss life plans at Eben Ezer church in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Wilfredo sits on a plastic chair inside Eben Ezer church, nestled in a gang-controlled neighborhood of El Salvador’s capital. It’s not hard to see why he’s a leader at the church: charismatic, completely bilingual, and polished in his button-down shirt – despite the sweltering heat.

But directly beneath his Adam’s apple, two numbers are visible: 1 and 8, for Barrio 18 – one of El Salvador’s two main gangs, who have helped make the country one of the world’s most violent. The shirt hides many more tattoos, signs of the different kind of leader Wilfredo once was: running Barrio 18’s international communications from Honduras to El Salvador, across Mexico and the United States.

“I got to know Christ in jail,” says Wilfredo, whose last name has been omitted for privacy. Here at Eben Ezer, it’s a common story. Every Tuesday, he brings together former gang members who, like him, say they have left gang life for good after becoming Evangelical Christians in prison.

More than 400 ex-members say that evangelical groups have helped them leave the gangs – a drop in the bucket here, where as many as 60,000 gang members control large parts of the country. But in a society where gangs are so deeply entrenched and government attempts to curb the violence have often failed, some churches’ experiences suggest that addressing the basic needs that many young people hope to find in gang life – acceptance, belonging, stability – can also be key to getting them out.

Wilfredo’s family brought him to the United States at age 10, and eventually, like many Salvadoran immigrants, he joined the Barrio 18 gang in its birthplace – Los Angeles.

“I was a kid who just wanted to fit it,” Wilfredo says, remembering his teenage years in the late 1990s. “It was popular in those days to be part of a gang. I needed to belong to a gang to be accepted.”

But if efforts like Wilfredo’s show that rehabilitation can work, experts say, they also illustrate the challenges ahead. A lack of institutional support for, and even suspicion of, groups trying to engage with gang members and help set them up on a different path looms particularly large. Rehabilitation groups are often accused of being “gang sympathizers,” says Jeanne Rikkers, a human rights activist who has worked with gangs in prisons through a number of nongovernmental organizations. You’re treated “as if you yourself are a gang member,” she says.

Mano Dura

After 20 years in the US, Wilfredo was deported alone back to El Salvador, where he was arrested for armed robbery after connecting with the gang on the other side. He completed his 10-year sentence in January and is now a free man.

But the overall violence has hit epidemic proportions. In 2015, El Salvador claimed the highest homicide rate in the world. Last year, the murder rate dropped substantially – but there were still more than 5,000, in a country with only 6.4 million people.

A controversial 2012 truce between rival gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 was criticized for lack of transparency. Violence spiked when it crumbled in 2014. Today, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has opted for the hardline approach known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist.” The armed forces have been called in to deal with gang violence, while death squads have been accused of extrajudicial killings by human rights groups and investigative news outlets.

“People think that problems and social conflicts are going to be resolved with laws: the stricter the law, the more likely it is to be successful,” says Nelson Flores, a former security expert at FESPAD, one of the country’s leading human rights groups. “But actually it’s the opposite,” he adds, reeling off a list of laws that failed to stop the violence.

A government plan called Safe El Salvador coupled law enforcement with institutional strengthening and social policies including job creation for young people and rehabilitation for prisoners. Human rights organizations, however, say the government has failed to implement the plan. A separate government prison management program, called Yo Cambio (I Change), offers skill training intended to ease inmates’ readjustment to post-prison life. Local NGOs, however, have criticized it for not focusing on gangs.

But for several hundred former gang members, help has come from perhaps an unlikely place: churches.

“The Evangelicals are perhaps the only way in which gang members can retire or walk away from gangs without leaving the country,” says José Miguel Cruz, a researcher at Florida International University who has been studying gangs in El Salvador for 20 years. “There is no other consistent rehabilitation effort in El Salvador right now.”

Professor Cruz’s latest State Department-funded study found that over 58 percent of former and active gang members believe that the church would be the best institution to lead rehabilitation programs.

The need to belong

Here at Eben Ezer, many Barrio 18 members speak about unsuccessful attempts at leaving the gangs, often for a loved one. But they point to the church as the institution that helped them commit.

Key to some church groups’ success, they suggest, is their understanding that gangs can fill emotional and social needs – factors that help make gang life appealing to teenagers in the first place.

“These young men need an identity. They can find that within the gang or the church,” says Pastor Luis Gonzalez, who has worked with gang members in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison for several years.

In interviews, former Barrio 18 members talk as though being a gang member and a Christian were binary opposites. “I used to be a gang member, but now I’m a Christian,” they often say.  

“The Evangelical church provides alternatives of survival, access to employment in some cases, emotional support and a new identity, which is fundamental,” says Dr. Cruz. “The church identity replaces the gang identity completely.”

Many youths entered the gang as teens, growing up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the capital after the civil war. For some, the gang even represented the semblance of a family.

“My parents used to fight a lot.... Maybe that’s why I decided to join the gang and get away from them. Perhaps I got more support from them than from my own family,” says Jorge, whose last name has been omitted for privacy. He entered the gang 20 years ago, when he was 16. “But then you realize that it was all a lie. I spent 10 years in jail and I didn’t get any support. Only my wife helped me then.”

A personal approach also helps gain gang members’ trust, Cruz says, letting them succeed in some cases where more institutional approaches fail.

“They tell them, ‘God loves you. He will save you. You can change,’ ” he says. “That is very appealing to gang members with strong feelings of guilt for everything they have done.”

Feeling suspect

But the churches cannot erase the more material needs that drive young Salvadorans toward gang activity. Employment prospects for youth, particularly ex-gangsters, are meager. At least one local factory does offer job placements to select former gang members, but many of them have first come through the church.

At League Collegiate Outfitters in Ciudad Arce, some 15 miles from the capital, former MS 13 and Barrio 18 members work side by side making college T-shirts. But this model is not widespread. Many Salvadorans resent those who give opportunities to former criminals. Others are simply relieved to know the gangs are off the streets.

Back at Eben Ezer Church, Wilfredo says he got turned down for a job at a call center because of his criminal record. He seems disillusioned by society’s response to his conversion inside the prison system. “They don’t believe we can change,” he says.

He knows becoming a Christian won’t necessarily find him a job, and that in this sense, the group’s support is more moral than practical.

A pile of dirty mattresses are stacked in a small room at the back of the church with a makeshift cooker and an outdoor toilet for the handful of former gang members who live here at any given time.

But for many, Eben Ezer is still regarded as an oasis. “We found this church, Eben Ezer, and men like Pastor Nelson Moz who opened these doors to shelter and protect us,” adds Wilfredo with a smile.

But the activities of Pastor Moz, who runs Eben Ezer church, have cost him. In 2015, the Supreme Court of El Salvador labeled gangs as terrorist organizations. Now, many people working with gang members say they fear being arrested.

The police “have warned me, ‘You cannot be protecting people in this way. You’re committing an offense,’ ” Moz says.

“I end up feeling like what I’m doing is subversive,” he adds, wearily recalling three police raids at the church during worship services this year, when officers put the men on their knees and checked their IDs. “We make sure we don’t have anyone here being sought by the authorities. If they have served their time, they bring a notice that says so.”

In 2012 Obama designated the MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization. Since then, American non-governmental organizations wishing to work on rehabilitating gang members in El Salvador must obtain a waiver from the US government.

Under current “extraordinary measures” put in place in prisons last year, phone calls and visits are forbidden. One former gang member recently found out that both his parents had died while he was locked up.

Moz would like to meet with authorities, and has talked with government representatives at public events, but says he hasn’t heard back.

“We want them to acknowledge what we are doing,” he says. “We don’t want this to be seen as something hidden or clandestine. It is part of our ministry to help those in need.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

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