Sirens blare and helicopters roar as the sun rises over the hills of San Salvador. It’s 10.30am on February 2nd, and nine police officers have just been ambushed. They got a call an hour ago about a stash house where members of the Barrio 18 gang were hiding guns. When they showed up, the gangsters blitzed them with bullets. One officer is dead. Five are in the hospital. Two corpses, identifiable as gang members by the tattoos that cover their bodies, lie sprawled on the ground.
Less than three miles away, in a neighbourhood controlled by the same gang, another group of tattooed men prepare for action in a dark hallway. Loud music, clanging metal and frenzied chatter bounce off the walls. Dressing carefully, the men watch the clock. At 2pm, they nod to each other, gather their supplies and open the heavy metal door.
Light streams in and the smell of fresh bread wafts out. The men break into pairs, hoisting cloth-covered plastic crates onto their shoulders, and head off in different directions. “Sweet bread! Garlic bread! Bread with ham! Pizza!” they shout. When the crates are empty and their pockets full of coins, the men return to the constricted quarters in the back of the Eben-Ezer church where they run the small bakery.
Over the past year, the church has become a refuge for recently released prisoners who are trying to leave the Barrio 18 gang and pledge themselves to God. There’s Saúl, whose sister drove him straight to the church when he left prison five months ago after serving 15 years for murder. There’s Cristóbal, who spent a decade hiding in Guatemala only to discover on his return that the gang had recruited his teenage son. There’s Raúl, who has a limp from a gun battle with the rival gang, MS-13, and a face inked from chin to forehead like a newspaper. There’s Christofer, who waited in prison for a month after his release date because he had no one to fetch him. Numbers rise and fall, but these days Eben-Ezer usually provides sanctuary to half a dozen people who want to escape the grip of gangs that are tearing their country apart.
El Salvador is a country of volcanoes dotted with coffee plantations and valleys filled with sugarcane fields. It is also a country of barbed-wire fences, security guards with guns, and neighbourhoods where visitors must roll down the car windows so that the gangs’ teenage postes can see who goes in and out. The Colonia Dina is one such neighbourhood, a jumble of working-class houses decorated with plants and Christmas lights, and sheet-metal shacks surrounded by rubbish and muddy chickens.
At the bottom of a hill under a drooping almond tree stands the Eben-Ezer church, a yellow concrete building barely distinguishable from the houses on either side. A small congregation gathers three times a week in a high-ceilinged sanctuary with rows of plastic chairs, a platform for the rock band that accompanies the Pentecostal service, a podium for the pastors and little else. Down a staircase in the back left corner, in rooms normally used for Bible study, former gang members bake bread by day and sleep on thin mattresses on the floor by night.
At first glance, the church’s leaders make an odd couple. Nelson Moz is Eben-Ezer’s official pastor, a baby-faced man in his 50s with glasses and a thick moustache. Early last year, he opened his doors to Wilfredo Gómez, a 41-year-old gangster-turned-preacher with twinkling eyes and a mystical church named the Last Trumpet. The two pastors acknowledge that they’re trying to do what many consider impossible: spirit away members of El Salvador’s powerful gangs. But they believe this is the country’s only hope.
Gómez’s early memories are tinged with violence: knife fights between his alcoholic uncles, and bomb blasts from a civil war that left one in 60 Salvadorans dead and one in four displaced. When he was ten, a tall man wearing RayBans showed up at his grandmother’s apartment in a poor neighbourhood of San Salvador and announced that he would be taking the boy to Los Angeles. The man was his father, a taxi driver whose sympathy for the leftist guerrilla army had forced him to flee the country when Gómez was three. He was also a drug addict who beat his wife and turned a blind eye when his pre-teen son joined a gang.
Barrio 18 and MS-13, its leading competitor, originated in Los Angeles among the children of refugees. The gangs started as posses of marginalised teenagers – MS-13 members shared a fondness for heavy metal – but before long they were stockpiling guns and machetes to defend themselves against black and Mexican rivals. Gómez lived at 18th Street and Union, the cradle of Barrio 18, which gave the gang its name (barrio means “neighbourhood”). Originally lured by the gangsters’ fresh sense of style – baggy Dickies jeans, tight white muscle shirts and Nike Cortez trainers – Gómez ran away from his abusive father to live on the streets. He moved in with a palabrero, a local gang leader, selling drugs and beating up rivals to earn his keep. “They saw me as a good soldier, a good prospect,” he says. “I was the kid who didn’t think.”
Gómez moved up the ranks, gaining leadership and responsibility as he battled enemies, shuffled drugs and prostitutes between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and bounced between prison and hospital. One doctor, marvelling at his x-rays after a gunfight that earned him four bullet wounds but no damage to major organs, asked Gómez his nom de guerre. “Villain,” Gómez said. “It should be ‘Lucky’,” the doctor replied. But in 2007, his luck ran out. Gómez found himself on a plane back to El Salvador with 50 other deportees. Three months later, he got a ten-year sentence for stealing a bodyguard’s Uzi submachinegun.
Gómez was one of thousands of gang members deported back to El Salvador in the 1990s and early 2000s by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Twelve years of fighting had left El Salvador’s institutions and infrastructure in tatters. The warring sides – rebels with socialist leanings who wanted democracy and land reform; and a right-wing government backed by communist-paranoid America – had agreed to peace on paper, but street crime soon supplanted political violence. An amnesty law that pardoned egregious atrocities cemented a culture of impunity. The polarised political parties that had morphed out of wartime rivalry were too busy duking it out to bother governing. The country’s poorest floundered.
A hot spot during the cold war, El Salvador never really cooled down. After the mass deportations, gangs spread like fire in a sugarcane field. Poor kids looked up to new arrivals like Gómez with their Spanglish and their American clothes; parents working full-time or living thousands of miles away in America struggled to peel them away.
There are now more than 70,000 gang members in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 have carved up much of the region’s territory. In pockets where public services and streetlights are scarce, the gangs have more sway than the government. They patrol the neighbourhood, checking ID cards and licence-plate numbers, keeping watch for rivals and police.
Unlike Colombian cartels or Mexican narcos, Central American street gangs don’t get rich by trafficking drugs. They don’t have a lucrative business empire like the Russian or Italian mafia. Money to buy food and guns comes from small-scale extortion – renta – collected from residents and businesses in zones under gang control. The dividends don’t add up to much: most rank-and-file gang members earn less than $65 a month, half the minimum wage of an agricultural day labourer.
Such paltry profits show that the gang phenomenon is more social than criminal, says José Miguel Cruz, a researcher at Florida International University who has been studying the gangs in his native El Salvador for two decades. Still, warring gangs have made El Salvador one of the most violent countries in the world. Its homicide rate in 2017 was 60 murders per 100,000 people, compared with New York City’s homicide rate of 3.4 per 100,000. Last year, 290 people were murdered in New York. If the city had the same homicide rate as El Salvador, 5,130 people would have died.
In 2013, the breakdown of a shaky truce between gang leaders and the government led to bloody street battles and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans to the US-Mexico border. The arrival of unaccompanied teenagers and the scarcity of support they encountered fuelled a spate of gang-related violence in immigrant communities on Long Island and in the DC suburbs. President Donald Trump called MS-13 members “animals” and in the past year has seized on murders in a few isolated areas of the country to justify ramping up immigration raids, cancelling several asylum programmes for Central Americans and calling for the construction of a border wall.
For the past several years, US policy in Central America has focused on finding ways to stem the flow of migrants. As part of the effort, the US State Department hired Cruz in 2016 to lead a study examining why Salvadoran youths joined gangs and under what conditions they left.
The study found that most gang members come from disintegrated, dysfunctional families. They seek resources from the gang – friendship, protection, money and self-confidence – that aren’t provided at home. New recruits join at the age of 15, on average. At that age, the rewards of la vida loca – getting high off marijuana, controlling women, demanding respect – seem worth the risk of police harassment, prison time, and even death. “This view of the gangs remains unchallenged during the adolescent years, but starts to fade as the person matures, forms a family of his/her own, and faces the hardships brought by gang violence and law enforcement persecution,” the authors wrote.
Such hardships have increased in recent years as the gangs have become more powerful and police retaliation more brutal. Salvadoran security forces killed 39 alleged gang members in 2013. In 2016, they killed 603. “If you’re a gang member, everybody is your enemy now,” says Cruz. The average age of study participants was 25 – elderly for a gang member. More than 60% claimed to be in some stage of “calming down” or leaving the gang, a remarkable percentage considering the difficulty of doing so. Joining requires getting beaten up by fellow members, and in some cases committing at least one murder. Tattoos signal permanent commitment. In El Salvador, the saying goes, the only way to leave the gang is in a body bag.
In 2009, an inmate named Nilson Bonilla in the Izalco prison in south-western El Salvador had a vision that his wife brought him a message from God. He should found a church and name it after a verse from Corinthians: “It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live for ever. And we who are living will also be transformed.”
Bonilla announced that God had chosen him to be pastor of a new congregation called the Last Trumpet, and he convinced six other prisoners to join him. What the church lacked in membership it made up in spirit. Services, called cultos, involved speaking in tongues, spontaneous healing and rapturous displays of gratitude to God for saving members from the gang, which they believed was a tool of the Devil. When Gómez was transferred to Izalco in 2013, this spectacle filled him with a giddiness he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager running with the gang, high on PCP and adrenaline. “People who were tattooed from head to foot were crying like babies,” he recalls. “But it was from the power of God. I said to myself, ‘I want to experience that.’”
The Last Trumpet was not the first church to be born in a Salvadoran prison; dozens have cropped up over the years. But it has survived longer than most, despite a mass transfer of Barrio 18 members to another maximum-security prison in San Francisco Gotera and a state of emergency imposed on seven prisons in March 2016.
In response to a soaring murder rate and the massacre of 11 agricultural and electrical workers by Barrio 18 members, the government passed a series of “extraordinary measures” that were originally approved for a two-week period but remain in place two years on. Visits by relatives, doctors and judges were eliminated and recreation time was banned to reduce trafficking of weapons, drugs and cell phones. Now thousands of gang members spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week in overflowing cells.
In October 2016, members of the Last Trumpet – including Gómez, who had become one of the church’s leaders – asked the director of the Gotera prison if they could move to a separate section where they could hold religious services and “live in peace” away from active gang members. To their surprise, the director agreed. Within weeks, some 400 prisoners announced that they were leaving the gang to join the church.
Saúl Masferrer was one of those prisoners. Now 37, he started looking for God in 2010 after his mother died of a heart attack. After the prison director denied him permission to attend the funeral, he appealed to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in. If you let me go to the funeral, I’ll leave the gang, he promised. The next day, the prison director changed his mind. Masferrer arrived just before the casket was lowered into the ground, accompanied by four armed guards and chained at the waist, ankles and wrist “like a dog”.
He spent the next six years ping-ponging between the gang and the Bible, until the mass exodus in 2016. He acknowledges that the miserable conditions of the lockdown helped spark his decision – the religious section was slightly less squalid – but he doesn’t credit the government. He insists that the extraordinary measures that drove so many gangsters to leave were “a method God imposed”.
El Salvador used to be overwhelmingly Catholic. Then evangelical missionaries started arriving en masse in the second half of the 20th century. The failure of the established church to stick up for victims of scorched-earth campaigns and government repression during the civil war drove many families out of cathedrals and into the ramshackle templos springing up throughout the slums. Nowadays, more than 40% of El Salvador’s population is Protestant. Poor communities favour Pentecostalism, which shuns pomp and hierarchy and emphasises personal transformation, scripture and discipline.
Rehabilitating gang members demands filling the void that drove them into gangs. Pentecostalism offers a compelling mix of boot-strapping individualism and tight-knit community. Domineering gang leaders may refashion themselves as pastors. Obedient soldiers can serve as “sheep”, as the Gotera prisoners call themselves. Religion can provide comfort and forgiveness to those who’ve committed heinous crimes. Some 95% of gang members interviewed by Cruz’s team said that their relationship with God was very important to them. More than half said that joining a church was the best way to leave a gang.
Some swear it is the only way. Gangs stay in power by maintaining a large standing army; defectors undermine their projection of strength. Members know sensitive information: the location of weapon stashes and clandestine graves, the gang’s leadership structure and its extortion network. Gangs need to manage this risk, so leaving entails a delicate process of negotiation. Older gangsters who have proved their trustworthiness have an easier time, as do churchgoers who avoid alcohol, drugs and other activities associated with la vida loca. Religion serves as a kind of ankle tag that lets the gang keep an eye on its former members.
That may be part of the reason why the Eben-Ezer church in the Colonia Dina has a relationship, albeit an uneasy one, with the local gang. It started with Raúl Valladares, the convert with the limp and tattooed face. Born and raised in the neighbourhood, he joined the gang at the age of ten and spent time in five prisons for robbery and gun possession. He left behind his “pyrotechnic past” to become a Christian in 2006; his commitment to God survived the murder of his wife 24 hours after their wedding. When his Barrio 18 pals offered to avenge her death, Valladares refused. After that, the gang took his transformation seriously.
He nearly re-joined in 2012 when he left prison and found himself sleeping in an abandoned house where gang members gather to smoke dope and plan crimes. In desperation he asked if he could stay at Eben-Ezer for a few days. Pastor Moz let him, though some congregants left in protest. He ended up staying for five years.
On a typical day, the bakery makes $80 to $100, most of which pays for the next day’s supplies. The remainder is divided between the workers, each of whom takes home four or five dollars, seven on a good day. October 19th 2017 was not a good day. Police raided the bakery and arrested five workers for “illegal associations”, a catch-all charge used to net gang members. It didn’t matter that the men insisted they had left Barrio 18. “In the eyes of most Salvadorans, they’re all the same,” says Jeanne Rikkers, an American human-rights activist who has worked in El Salvador for two decades. Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, the security minister, admits that Salvadoran law doesn’t distinguish between current and former gang members.
Repression has dominated the government’s response to gangs. Until the so-called anti-gang law was declared unconstitutional in 2004, police could throw suspects in jail just for having tattoos. The prison population exploded from 7,754 prisoners in 2000 to more than 35,000 in 2017, a third of whom have never been charged. Without rehabilitation programmes or sufficient space to house the inmates, who are caged scores to a cell like animals, penitentiaries became “crime schools”, admits the current prisons director, Marco Tulio Lima. A kid who enters with loose gang ties comes out a hardened criminal.
For roughly a year beginning in March 2012 the government convinced the gangs to stop killing each other. In return, gang leaders were transferred to minimum-security prisons and gang members were promised rehabilitation programmes and jobs. The truce halved the murder rate and demonstrated that, if offered an alternative, most gang members would abandon violence. But rehabilitation projects never materialised and most Salvadorans hated the idea of their government negotiating with criminals. Salacious details that emerged when the truce began to unravel, including the presence of flat-screen TVs, naked dancers and thousands of boxes of fried chicken in the prisons, made further dialogue with gangs politically impossible.
Since mid-2013 the government has doubled down on its mano dura (“hard hand”) approach, avoiding any appearance of sympathy. A “Rehabilitation and Reintegration” bill has languished for eight years in the legislative assembly. The US Treasury has designated MS-13 a terrorist organisation, making any dealings with the gang a federal crime. Exemptions are possible, but few Salvadoran institutions have expressed interest in working with former recruits. Only one firm, a factory called League that makes clothing for American universities, has a policy of hiring them. For ex-gangsters, baking is about as good as it gets.
More than a thousand of the 1,300 prisoners in Gotera have renounced their gang ties and declared themselves born-again Christians. Last year the prison director, Oscar Benavides, introduced a rehabilitation programme called Yo Cambio (“I change”). On a Thursday afternoon in December, prisoners in cheerily coloured cells demonstrated “productive activities” that will in theory allow them to support themselves after leaving prison: weaving hammocks, mending boxer shorts, building plywood shelves, stamping T-shirts with “Jesus Saves”. The most coveted class was English. “Good afternoon,” chimed 30 men – some with tattoos of demons on their faces and scalps – who were squeezed into child-sized desks.
On the other side of the building, 250-odd prisoners who refused to quit the gang were living under lockdown, crammed into a single garbage-infested cell about the size of a tennis court. Every day one or two convert, Benavides said. (Divine inspiration may have less to do with it than the fact that, as a Christian, you can leave your cell and use a bathroom with a door.)
The legacy of the exodus depends on the fate of these men once they get out. The current residents of Eben-Ezer church recently painted the walls, stuck a door on the shower and started a collection fund for security cameras (to give the men a heads-up next time the police barge in). Gómez is looking for a bigger space. As it stands, the Eben-Ezer church can accommodate only a fraction of the Last Trumpet members who are being released. “The government may have created a pathway with the state of emergency, but it forgot to create an exit,” Moz says.
The Last Trumpet has also lost members: a man who couldn’t resist returning to his hometown and two weeks later turned up dead; Julio Marroquín, who started selling sweets in San Salvador’s central market but landed back in jail after someone spotted his tattoos under layers of make-up; Carlos Montano, the pastor who led the mass exodus in the Gotera prison but couldn’t keep off drugs once he was released.
One recent departure was a young convert named Josef, who left the church after police detained him twice while he was baking and selling bread. When Barrio 18 members ambushed nine police officers on February 2nd, the government tried to frame him. The police chief told reporters he’d fled from a stash house and grabbed a six-year-old to use as a human shield. Two days later, the chief admitted that this “preliminary version” of events was false. Josef claims he had been nowhere near the crime scene.
On the afternoon of the ambush, as the sky turned pink and the wailing sirens died down, the men from the Colonia Dina dropped off their empty bread-baskets and picked up their Bibles. They piled into a minivan and headed to an empty lot. Police were swarming, but they had been planning for weeks to host an evangelisation campaign to reassure local families that their conversions to Christianity were genuine, and to encourage young Barrio 18 members to attend church services. Only a few families showed up, but they sang, prayed and talked until the sky was dark.
“We understand that people aren’t going to change their minds about us overnight,” Gómez says. The question facing El Salvador in the long term isn’t whether an individual gang member can change, but whether society will create the conditions to make such change sustainable. “A lot of people wonder how our story will end,” says Moz.