Wolves to lambs

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador – Pastor Manuel Rivera’s voice echoes through the crowded courtyard in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador, as hardened criminals weep and bow their heads in prayer.

Brutal ‘mara’ street gangs and chronic poverty have made El Salvador one of the most murderous countries on the planet, but the growth of evangelical Christianity behind bars is giving gangsters a way to break the spiral of violence.
Rivera, an ex-hitman from the powerful Barrio 18 gang, speaks to rows of men with spidery black tattoos on their arms, necks and faces, delivering a message of salvation: God had rescued them from violence. Returning to gang life would mean death.

“We used to say that the gang was our family, but God took the blindfold off our eyes,” says Rivera, 36, dressed like the other inmates in a white t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals.

Some weep silently while he reads from a black bible. Others sing hymns, clapping and waving arms enthusiastically. They chorus: “Amen.”

By embracing religion, these men can leave their gangs without retaliation, Rivera says. But if they do not show real devotion, their former gang-mates may kill them, fearing they will join other gangs and become enemies.
Convicted murderer Rivera’s own transformation came behind bars, when, battered by years of running from police and enemy gangs, unable to see his son, he turned to prayer.

When God appeared in a dream, prophesying Rivera would have his own flock, he became a pastor, he says. He is now half-way through an eight-year sentence for criminal association.

Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Central America in the past decade, colouring local politics. Dozens of lawmakers embrace it, defending hardline positions against gay rights and abortion.

The fervour has spilled into jails, where it is welcomed by officials who sense its potential for reforming ex-gangsters.
President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s government plans to use Gotera as a model of religious rehabilitation it hopes can be replicated.

Two years ago the prison, located about 100 miles (166km) east of capital San Salvador, was almost entirely home to active gang members. Now, the majority of its approximately 1500 inmates want to find redemption, says prison director Oscar Benavides.

The conversions “show the country that it is possible to rehabilitate those in the Mara Salvatrucha or other gangs,” says Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez, dismissing criticisms that the government should do more.

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