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Pastors find a role ministering to young men swept up in El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs

KIFI

By MARÍA TERESA HERNÁNDEZ
Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The smell of pineapple bread fills the kitchen of “Vida Libre,” or “free life,” a gang rehabilitation program founded in El Salvador by American pastor Kenton Moody in 2021.

The trust that Moody puts in former gang members is not widely shared. Thousands of lives have been destroyed in this Central American country after decades of extortion and murder committed by the gangs.

Over the past year, President Nayib Bukele’s security forces have cracked down harshly on gangs, arresting more than 68,000 people suspected of criminal involvement, though human rights groups say innocent people are also being detained.

Ministries like Moody’s are caught in the middle. Dozens of men who were part of evangelical rehabilitation ministries were also arrested and taken back to prison, though most had served their original sentences. Of the 38 members of Vida Libre, 10 have been detained by the government.

Bukele has said that God might forgive gang members, but the government will make them pay for their crimes. In March the authorities sent 2,000 suspects to a huge new prison built especially for these criminal groups and the justice minister vowed that “they will never return” to the streets.

Moody’s own family has suffered. Four years ago, gang members killed his brother-in-law. His wife, Eunice, was reluctant to support Vida Libre, but after days of prayer she concluded that forgiveness could bring her peace.

“My husband came to El Salvador 12 years ago with a purpose,” she said. “He has always visited those who nobody wants to visit; he has worked with those who nobody wants to work with.”

Inside the Vida Libre complex, in the impoverished city of Santa Ana, Moody frequently hugs the young men under his care and assigns them chores.

On a recent day, Angel and Kevin sprinkled sugar over pastries in the bakery. Salvador replaced light bulbs in the barnyard. Moody asked that they be identified only by their first names for their safety.

Andy, who crafts wooden key chains to sell, said a gang recruited him when he was 12. The 29-year-old joined Moody’s program two years ago after almost a decade in prison.

“Maybe humanity sees me as someone bad, but I hope that with my attitudes changing day by day, I can prove that I’m different,” he said.

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The first of the big gangs were born far from El Salvador.

To flee the country’s civil war, half a million Salvadorans migrated to the United States in the 1980s. The majority settled in Los Angeles and there, after joining Mexican criminal groups, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs were formed.

In the 1990s, the U.S. deported 4,000 gang members to El Salvador. The government estimates the current number of gang members is as high as 76,000.

After arriving in El Salvador, MS-13 took control of over roughly half the territory and Barrio 18 most of the rest. A few spots were considered neutral.

Many Salvadorans were affected by this territorial division and were forced to internalize unwritten rules, such as avoiding enemy neighborhoods, dressing according to gang standards and paying extortion demands to survive.

Last year, after a surge in gang violence, Bukele issued an emergency decree that suspended certain civil liberties, including access to a lawyer and the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest. Polls shows that most people support the president’s decree, despite criticism from civil rights organizations.

About 5,000 people were released after the government failed to link them to criminal groups, according to official records.

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Moody founded Vida Libre after visiting a juvenile prison where gang members from a nearby community were incarcerated for burying a woman alive.

Fearing that they might return to gang life upon their release, he wondered: How can I truly help?

“A church is the basis for supporting people to get ahead,” he said.

His evangelical church, “La Puerta Abierta,” which means “open door,” is a cornerstone for social projects funded mostly by U.S. donors. His foundation sponsors houses for homeless people, a clinic and a school.

Vida Libre, one of the church’s programs, takes in minors who are nearing the end of their prison sentence and have demonstrated good conduct. Its goal is to provide an adequate transition to society, said Allan Espinoza, who leads the project.

The stigma of prison makes it difficult for ex-convicts to resume their studies or find employment. For this reason, Vida Libre offers workshops in agriculture, carpentry, automotive painting and baking. Biblical studies also are offered.

The program says it welcomes ex-gang members who don’t believe in God, but every participant must arise at 5 a.m. to attend a morning service and read the Bible daily.

Breaking the rules leads to expulsion, and rehabilitation takes time because many were recruited as children, Espinoza said. The discipline can seem unbearable. Some tell Espinoza they want to leave, but he asks them to be patient.

Others knock on his door to talk and, once in his office, they just cry.

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Not all evangelical churches in El Salvador open their doors to gang members, but in most marginalized communities there are pastors willing to take the risk.

“Within the evangelical tradition, the worst sinner provides the Holy Spirit with the biggest opportunity to demonstrate the power of the Gospel and Jesus to transform people,” said Robert Brenneman, professor of criminal justice and sociology at Goshen College in the U.S. state of Indiana.

He spent years in Central America studying the personal crises faced by gang youth desiring a transition to a stable, nonviolent lifestyle.

Evangelical-Pentecostal congregations offer resources for transformation — and expect converts to stay away from crime, alcohol and drugs.

“These organizations address what they believe to be the root causes of gang affiliation and participation: poverty, weak schools and unemployment,” Brenneman said.

Social reintegration is complex, however, because crime victims often mistrust those who have had connections to violent groups. One woman whose brother was killed by a gang — asking that she not be identified due to fears for her safety — said gang members should be jailed for life.

In the last two decades, three Salvadoran presidents have imposed strict measures to fight gangs. The two prior to Bukele failed in the long term.

“No one can deny the urgency of the public safety crisis … but the crisis is larger than the gangs,” Brenneman said. “By framing the crisis of violent crime as a problem of reckless and belligerent youth, … Salvadoran leaders have been able to scapegoat the gangs and direct attention away from the inequality that drives so much of the violence.”

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While walking through an empty room behind Eben-Ezer Church in San Salvador, the Rev. Nelson Moz speaks with sadness about a man named Raúl.

The ex-gang member, whose face was covered in tattoos, came under Moz’s wing in 2012, saying God had taken over his heart.

Raúl and more than 40 men from Moz’s ministry are now back in jail. Most of them were apprehended in the church’s facilities.

According to the pastor, Raúl converted to Christianity in prison. After being released he went back to his gang, but soon wanted out. Raúl asked for help, saying he had no family and his whole life had been the gang.

The pastor placed a mattress in his office and offered temporary refuge for Raúl. They shared lunch and long conversations there.

“That’s how I got to understand,” Moz said. “Imprisonment might be necessary to take out of circulation a person who is causing harm to society, but there’s a background to it.”

Those who are born and raised in impoverished neighborhoods are subject to stigma. Schools refuse to admit their children, banks deny them loans and companies discard their job applications.

Gang members understood this. To those in need, they offered food and clothing, protection and respect. For thousands of Salvadorans who lacked loving ties and a roof over their heads, the gang became their family.

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The beds are still made in the empty rooms of Eben-Ezer Church.

Some new mattresses are wrapped in plastic. Before the detention of Raúl and other ex-gang members who were part of his rehabilitation program, Moz was planning to expand. “True change can happen,” he said.

Some members of his church were released from prison a decade ago. Many had removed their tattoos and became pastors. Most had jobs and families that now suffer in their absence.

Moz and Moody do what they can to support families whose members have been recently imprisoned by the government. Moody builds wooden homes for single mothers with limited resources and provides free school for their children. Moz looks for people willing to take in orphans whose parents are gone.

“Young people can change the course of the family, help the country’s poverty if they have education and work,” Moody said.

Rooting out gangs will take years, he thinks. The weeds have been cut, but as long as the roots remain hidden, the breeding ground — the marginalization — that gave birth to them will also subsist.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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