A growing number of gang members are turning to God.

It's happening in the streets, in the communities still controlled by gangs, and in the segregated prisons. It's a phenomenon which, despite being hard to believe at first, has been recognized by prison authorities: Hundreds of gang members are abandoning and outright rejecting their gangs, opting instead for the teachings of evangelical churches. In Gotera prison, close to 500 members of the Barrio 18 have retired from gang life and are now saying that they have no relation with the group. In some communities in San Salvador, ex-members of the MS13 openly preach in rival territory. Is El Salvador ready for this unprecedented phenomenon?

Mr. J is a daredevil. This afternoon he has a microphone and he's grinning.

Their screams crash against the walls marked with graffiti and make their audiences' ears ring. They run through the alleys and across the rooftops of this inhospitable community. They call the gang members "cowards and liars." They say that the gang is a farce. And they speak with good manners. For 11 years, he was a Barrio 18 "homeboy" and controlled a community similar to the one that he has stopped in today. With the help of four loudspeakers, he is trying to rip apart what was once his gang.

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of Revista Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

Mr. J is a daredevil, but he is not the only one.

"Amen, brothers. On this day we bring a transformative message, brothers. We, who in another time were gang members … The devil paid us poorly! For this reason I tell the child to listen to me. A gang member is not your friend! Christ can change a gang member!"

The audience nods their heads. An audience of men and women crowded in an alley so tight that not a person nor car could pass. They applaud, hum and close their eyes, clench their fists, raise their arms, move in their seats and respond to his words with words equally joyful. Hallelujah!

The worship continues and Mr. J mocks the gang code.

"'And you'll see, my dog!' says one to another. 'Here we are going to die us two together,' they say … Lies of the devil! The first bullet hasn't even sounded yet and the cowards are already running away!"

Mr. J ignores his listeners for a few moments, who are growing increasingly euphoric in their plastic seats. He seems to search for someone's glance, looking up and then down at the ground, as if talking with other people, in another place, in another time. His glance is furious and mischievous. At the collar of his white shirt is a tangle of old tattoos that speak of another life, from wilder times.

He starts yelling again. He yells this in a country where the people, out of fear, do not say the term gang member, where the people whisper and refer to them as "the men," and where the law of the street forces you to "see, hear and shut up." The words of Mr. J are particularly significant because they are pronounced in a community that for years has been a bastion of the Barrio 18. And, no less important, because they come out of the mouth of a man who repents for his past, for his gang, one of many that form a little-known phenomenon. One that extends into communities where the state is barely existent, a movement that has arrived in the street and in the prisons meant solely for gang members, and threatens to create a schism: those who have retired and abandoned their gangs for the Evangelical Church.

Mr. J finishes his furious preaching with "Glory to God!" and drops the microphone with disdain, like someone leaving a defeated opponent on the canvas.

He is a daredevil, and he is not the only one.

From his plastic seat, Largo looks at everything very seriously. He still dresses in the typical clothes of a "homie," and it is almost impossible for him to cover his tattoos. He would have to cover his entire body. This is not his community, but he has been here since December, sheltered by the church that organized this event in the narrow alleys. He was recently released from San Francisco Gotera prison and is living proof of this prison phenomenon that could change everything for gang members -- that could change things for El Salvador.

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A Pentecostal church worships in a San Salvador community dominated by the Barrio 18's Revolucionarios gang. Photo c/o Factum

The New Clique of San Francisco Gotera Prison

It's 2012, in the Izalco penal facility. A pastor, who was a prisoner, fell into sin. The man that directed the evangelical church "The Final Trumpet," and whose parishioners were composed of dozens of Barrio 18 gang members, failed. Over the course of two years, daily, this pastor encouraged a handful of men to not look back, to walk away from the gang, and to forget about it.

Those that were there were aware that the church was large and full of "gifts," that there they spoke in tongues, that they lived in their own flesh the presence of a mysterious spirit that each time drove them further from the gang. That prison church grew before the eyes of the gang bosses who, overwhelmed, kept silent. But the pastor committed a sin -- the details of which are still unknown -- and for this sin he lost credibility.

The movement was left without a guide. However, a new pastor emerged from the parishioners. He who took the torch was a young ex-gang member: 23 years old, and only five years as a gang member. His name is Carlos Montano. With him began the true uprising, with dozens of retired members and dozens more men and boys who would later reject the gangs and say that they no longer belonged to them.

But when the church began to grow another change happened: the massive prisoner transfers of 2013 brought many of the prisoners from Izalco to San Francisco Gotera. The change did not stop anything. Right now there are close to 500 retired gang members in San Francisco Gotera, according to the director of El Salvador's penitentiary system.

The movement emerged despite the Salvadoran prison system, which is known for having little interest in rehabilitating gang members. The closest precedent was a government program called "Extended Hand," which existed from 2004 to 2009. It was a penitentiary farm that sheltered at most 20 young people who had been abandoned. This initiative was launched as a small piece of an anti-gang strategy called "Super Mano Dura" (Super Iron Fist), which rolled out repressive policies that led to prison overcrowding.

In sector five of the Gotera facility, the preaching was a little more intense each day, the groups grew larger, and the mysteries, the gifts, the spirits and the tongues a little more present each time. The groups grew until the area was not large enough to fit the church and its parishioners. The prison administration, bewildered, had to bring them to another sector, and then another.

Montano, who left Gotera a little more than three months ago, remembers it like this: "That was the explosion. That was the bomb that went off in the prison. Because it was a situation that had not been seen before. It brought almost 500 young people to the decision to say 'I will not return to the gang, I am not a gang member, now I am not a subject of the code nor of the gang … If brothers with the letters MS arrive, I will live with them … If they come to remove tattoos I will remove mine.' You know it is not easy. If you talk to active [gang members] they will not understand this."

The massive withdrawal comes at a time when the Salvadoran state has proposed creating a law intended to facilitate the rehabilitation of gang members. The official version is that this law would create voluntary and obligatory participation programs for gang members, collaborators and people at risk of becoming involved in gangs in order to "rehabilitate them." However, in practice, things could be very different. In summary, this law gives authorities the ability to capture anyone who could potentially become a gang collaborator, "whether it be of their own volition or through gang obligation." This means that, theoretically, all of the inhabitants of El Salvador's marginal neighborhoods could be moved into a new type of prison facility called "Centers for Special Internment."

Since the prison transfers, the Final Trumpet church takes at least one homeboy out of a gang each month. As of the end of 2016, there were almost 500 retired gang members. This phenomenon is recognized by General Director of Prison Facilities Rodil Hernández. He also calls it a "phenomenon." When asked by Factum, the official confirmed that the number of converted gang members in Gotera exceeds 400. However, like the government, he doubts that this conversion signifies a rupture in the gangs.

"I cannot be certain that all of those who are here as retired members do not belong to the gangs anymore, but I can say that at the very least there is a number of gang members who have verbally expressed that they have converted to evangelism," Hernández said in early January.

But what has happened with the inmates of sectors four, five and six in Gotera is different than the ones who have become "calmed." These individuals have stopped being violent and entered into a more peaceful state, even becoming part of a church, but as members of their gang. No, the inmates at Gotera say they cannot be gang members. They say they no longer belong to Barrio 18.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

The majority of the nearly 150 retired gang members who were interviewed over the last two years for this report spoke negatively about their past lives. They say they are no longer homeboys, and do not want to be anymore. Those who emerged from the movement in Gotera do not only encourage an escape from the structure. They give damaging sermons against the gang that, according to them, ruined their lives and robbed them of their youth.

Not all of the active gang members are okay with this movement, with the idea of permitting these members to escape. At least two "tribes" within Barrio 18 have threatened the movement. However, the threats have not yet led to any violent action.

The last time the gang condemned a group of this size, in La Esperanza prison in 2004, the Barrio 18's Revolucionarios faction was born. To move against the retired members in Gotera could bring about another fracture within the Barrio 18.

Neither the pastors nor the churches are new in prisons. But in Gotera, with an inmate population of a little more than a thousand, the almost 500 retried members are an unprecedented phenomenon. Neither the gangs nor the state were prepared for this.

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Mr. J with his Bible. Photo c/o Factum

The director of The Movement of Evangelical Churches for Peace, Sail Quintanilla, claims that for years there has been a tacit pact between the three main gangs in the country: Mara Salvatrucha and the two factions of Barrio 18 -- Revolucionarios and Sureños. This pact, although not formally documented, is part of the code of the neighborhoods and communities, basically stating that gang members who desert will be pardoned if they are sheltered by the Evangelical Church. This pact warrants more importance now, as hundreds of gang members abandon their cliques to search for a place in a society damaged and profoundly marked by gang violence.

These same structures that have made the tacit pact are now offering the Salvadoran government a less formal pact. MS13 has offered to dismantle itself, as has the Sureños faction of the Barrio 18, in order to open a dialogue with the government.

Five hundred men say they have left the gangs. That is much more than what the state, non-governmental organizations and international cooperation have achieved in their efforts to rehabilitate El Salvador.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The state has its own version of prison rehabilitation for gang members. They call it "Yo Cambio" (I Change), a program launched in 2015 targeting the prison population in general. It is a combination of vocational training and building a culture of peace. They learn crafts, how to cut wood and how to operate machinery while at the same time being taught to resolve their differences through dialogue and empathy. It is not designed for gang members, and so far it has not proven effective in transforming the violent situation inside or outside of the prison system.

"We are firm in the gang. Firm. We prefer to die as gang members, in honor of the two letters, than to go back," an MS13 member told Factum in January. This member is in Apanteos prison, which implemented the "Yo Cambio" program.

Some members of the movement in Gotera have completed their sentences and have returned to the streets. They search for refuge in small churches, like Largo is doing, and continue the mission of showing others that it is possible to start over again.

The Church of the Repentant

Largo and the parishioners are entering the edge of euphoria. Now there are people praying in murmurs, with closed eyes. The children of Mr. J sing short songs and the speakers elevate the voices for the whole community to hear.

Ms. Z has listened to everything attentively. She is sitting down a few seats to the side of Largo. She is dressed in the most classic evangelical style. Long skirt, a shirt without a neckline, simple shoes without heels. A white lace veil crowns her curly black hair. She has not opened her mouth. She is in the first few seats and she looks nervous. Her legs are together and her fingers are interlaced. They offer her the microphone, she raises her timid eyes from the floor and with short steps she presents herself before the listeners. And she transforms.

A rush of adrenaline runs through her and she screams with all her lungs with a voice that rumbles through the alleys. "Who lives?!" she asks. Everyone responds in unison with the same overwhelming force with which they were rebuked: "Christ lives!"

Her preaching seems more like a rap concert. Ms. Z is exhausted. She was intense. Her church surrounds her and watches her with approval. She yelled strongly, just like Mr. J did in order to make sure those who ordered their death not long ago can hear them. Ms. Z was part of Barrio 18 in this community and it was these same gang members, her ex-partners, who were going to kill her.

Ms. Z lost a drug package during a police operation and the gang decided that she would pay for this carelessness with her life. She would have been one more on the long list of female gang victims had it not been for the human rights group that opened its door to her. Those who saved her were members of the Christ is Coming Church, a kind of living dead, a group of people with dark pasts, who come the lowest levels of humanity.

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Photo c/o Factum

The director of the church is a rarity among rarities. He is a man whose life contradicts almost all of the dogmas that academics and officials repeat about gang members.

It's the pastor's turn.

A robust and small man has stopped in front of the congregation, close to one of the enormous speakers that blares the sermon for the entire community to hear. He is wearing a wine-colored shirt and a tie with a perfect knot. His hair is combed back and his beige pants are perfectly ironed. The pastor is possibly the strangest of all parishioners.

This afternoon, Mr. J is not the only one with tattoos. The pastor also has them. But the first difference is that the pastor's do not show the number 18. Underneath the wine-colored shirt are two marks. An "M" and an "S." It's hard to believe that the two of them can be together without trying to kill each other.

And not only that, both salute and applaud each other. They call each other brothers. They even seem to love each other.

The very idea that someone with an MS tattoo is involved in this community is incredible, but the pastor is more than that. He is an ex-MS13 member who lives and preaches in this neighborhood on a daily basis. Here, where on every corner there are at least two men with aggressive looks and baggy clothes that make everyone feel the presence of Barrio 18. The assumption about gang members is that the hate between these groups is such that the entrance of a rival would be marked by the drums of war.

There is a question that is impossible not to ask the pastor. Why have they not killed you? To this, the pastor has only one response: "It's because I walk with the Lord. He guards me." 

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of Revista Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

Investigations

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