God vs. gang? For some ex-gangsters in El Salvador, rehab happens at church

Wilfredo sits on a plastic chair inside Eben Ezer church, nestled in a gang-controlled neighborhood of El Salvador’s capital. It’s not hard to see why he’s a leader at the church: charismatic, completely bilingual, and polished in his button-down shirt – despite the sweltering heat.

But directly beneath his Adam’s apple, two numbers are visible: 1 and 8, for Barrio 18 – one of El Salvador’s two main gangs, who have helped make the country one of the world’s most violent. The shirt hides many more tattoos, signs of the different kind of leader Wilfredo once was: running Barrio 18’s international communications from Honduras to El Salvador, across Mexico and the United States.

“I got to know Christ in jail,” says Wilfredo, whose last name has been omitted for privacy. Here at Eben Ezer, it’s a common story. Every Tuesday, he brings together former gang members who, like him, say they have left gang life for good after becoming Evangelical Christians in prison.

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More than 400 ex-members say that evangelical groups have helped them leave the gangs – a drop in the bucket here, where as many as 60,000 gang members control large parts of the country. But in a society where gangs are so deeply entrenched and government attempts to curb the violence have often failed, some churches’ experiences suggest that addressing the basic needs that many young people hope to find in gang life – acceptance, belonging, stability – can also be key to getting them out.

Wilfredo’s family brought him to the United States at age 10, and eventually, like many Salvadoran immigrants, he joined the Barrio 18 gang in its birthplace – Los Angeles.

“I was a kid who just wanted to fit it,” Wilfredo says, remembering his teenage years in the late 1990s. “It was popular in those days to be part of a gang. I needed to belong to a gang to be accepted.”

But if efforts like Wilfredo’s show that rehabilitation can work, experts say, they also illustrate the challenges ahead. A lack of institutional support for, and even suspicion of, groups trying to engage with gang members and help set them up on a different path looms particularly large. Rehabilitation groups are often accused of being “gang sympathizers,” says Jeanne Rikkers, a human rights activist who has worked with gangs in prisons through a number of nongovernmental organizations. You’re treated “as if you yourself…

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