For the young men caught up in the vicious cycle of violence perpetrated by gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street in El Salvador, the church is the only way out. Becoming a born-again Christian is the one way that gang members will allow one of their own to leave and strike out for a better life.
The Church has always had a strange relationship with the gangs, with pastors and church groups being the only organizations allowed to work in gang-controlled communities. Somewhere along the line, gang leaders decided that if a member found God, he would be permitted to leave.
Warring street gangs have given the country the highest murder rate in the world for three straight years. For Salvadorans, the gangs are all-seeing and all-powerful, and citizens never escape their scrutiny. But this growing phenomenon of gang members joining the church has created a respite for many despite the pressure from all sides.
But it’s not all that easy. Gang members who leave are watched closely. One misstep, and they could be killed. Meanwhile, the government of El Salvador continues cracking down on gangs harshly, even if it means extra-judicially. Law enforcement is also rounding up anyone with any link to the gangs, even church officials that work with the gangs to foster peace.
But these churches are growing. And while some in El Salvador praise the pastors and reformed gang members for changing their ways, others aren’t too sure this isn’t merely a way to escape the wrath of law enforcement or rivals.