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The El Salvador pastors saving MS-13 gang members: ‘The only way out is through Jesus’

We are not the typical Christian. We have done a lot of things… Bad things. The hundreds of men
you see here, enthusiastically praying in prison, were once were part of the
brutal street gang MS-13 in El Salvador. Spearheaded by a burgeoning evangelical
movement in the country, they have all converted to Christianity. For those caught up in the cycle
of El Salvador’s vicious gang wars, the church is the only way out. Christians receive much better
treatment than active gang members in prison. It is one of the many reasons
it is easy to convert inside. Distrito Italia is one of the most notorious
MS-13 controlled neighbourhoods. It is so violent that government employees refuse to enter to provide services. Pastor William Arias,
a long time member of MS-13, who converted to Christianity
runs a small church inside the community. William
was one of the first members of MS-13 in El Salvador. He joined the gang in 1990
at 11 years old, brought in by one of the
founding members in the country. He spent nine years in MS-13 but was arrested and locked up
when he was caught with a grenade. After surviving an attempt on his life
in prison, William prayed and promised
God that he would convert if he got out alive. William
now sees it as his duty to reach others in gang life. These two boys,
barely teenagers, are prime recruitment age for gangs. They had been lurking near the church
and were persuaded to go inside. The boys accept Jesus,
a small victory for Pastor William. El Salvador’s decade-long battle with gangs
has its origins in the civil war that tore the country apart
in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorians
fled with many ending up in Los Angeles and settling in poor neighbourhoods. Targeted by black and Mexican gangs,
Salvadorian refugees formed their own, giving rise to MS-13 and their rivals,
18th Street. Stricter immigration laws passed
in the US in the 1990s, saw hundreds of these
gang members deported back to a country still
recovering from the civil war. The gangs took advantage of a power
vaccum and as they grew so did El Salvador’s murder rate, to the highest in the world. The gangs have wreaked havoc
across the country controlling massive extortion rackets
and killing anyone who gets in their way. Members of MS-13’s rival,
the 18th Street gang, have also turned to God
to escape gang life and seek forgiveness. Some former gang members have sought
refuge in the Ebenezer church where they operate a bakery to survive. Right now I have 11 guys living here. All of them ex-gang members. This is like a temporary housing. They come over here,
they get strength, they eat, they get clothes, and if they have family
then they leave, they start their own life. Just like a helping place. If they have no family,
they have no economy, no one to help them, then they stay. And that’s the reason why these
11 guys are over here. The program is the brainchild of Alfredo Gomez. Gomez joined 18th Street in Los Angeles
and spent time in prison before being deported. Locked up in El Salvador
for armed robbery, he found God in prison
after surviving tuberculosis. When I first got out,
I didn’t have a place to go. The rector and the guards,
they were telling me, ‘There’s someone here waiting for you.
They’re here to pick you up.’ So I come out the door and
I see them, they’re telling me they were sent by a church… Next time you know,
when I got here, they had a meal… Then comes the pastor
and he was like, ‘We heard what God is doing in there,
we’re here to help you.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, I never had
a family.’ And I had no one waiting for me
when I got out of prison. Not even in the States. And over here people that
don’t even know me, they were waiting for me. The way they received me,
inspired me. They gave me strength to continue
on the right path. So, that lesson right there
gave me the idea, ‘Why not do the same with others?’ On this day Juan
has just arrived, freshly released from prison
after serving time on a host of charges, including murder
and extortion. That night, Juan is welcomed
to the program during a church service. We are not the typical Christian, over here you have people
that have done a lot of things. Bad things. So in order for us to have a control
or a secureness, we got to make sure that these people
are really Christian and how do we do that? By having rules based on the bible. Like over here you’re not allowed
to do no crime. If I find out that you’re doing
something illegal, you are getting out of here. Such as robbing,
if you smoking cigarettes or doing drugs… That will get you out of here. Though there are programs in prison,
the government provides little to no help once these men are released. Despite the lack of resources,
Alfredo is hopeful. For me , this is what worked. When I first became Christian,
it was only about 90 of us. 70 of us, probably less. Now it’s over 1,500 ex-gang members
worshiping God in prison. A whole prison now is Christian. Something’s happening… Something’s really happening… For him,
the church is the only way to bring peace to El Salvador’s long-running gang wars. I used to hate the MS. I used to think about destroying them,
dropping a bomb on them, like Hiroshima. But now all I want to is preach
to them and tell them, ‘Jesus loves them.’ I dream one day having
an area, building our house where I could house both of them like having MS and 18th together
worshiping the Lord without any restrictions,
without any fear in their hearts… And build their faith.

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