The Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Pentecostal Church are two worlds seemingly at odds. One man, known as Elvis, has a foot in both. He first became a homeboy in the MS13 before turning to God. But one steadfast belief accompanied him in both walks of life: that men should be leaders and that women are weak. This allowed him to excel.
In the suffocating heat of summer in El Salvador, José Elvis Herrera Reinoso, alias "Elvis," is gathered with the family of an elderly woman inside her small home. The woman, who suffers from diabetes, had been close to death just a few days beforehand, but made a seemingly inexplicable recovery.
With just a few simple tools, including a Bible and loudspeaker, Elvis guides the family members in a religious celebration of this "miracle." His well-practiced preaching and passionate reading from the holy book tell anyone listening that he is a dedicated pastor. And the tattoos that cover his face let them know he was a member of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13), one of the most feared gangs in the world.
*This story is the first in a two-part investigation about how gender, violence and religion intersect in the harsh world of the MS13 gang in El Salvador. It also forms part of InSight Crime's ongoing series on gender and organized crime in the Americas. Read our full coverage here.
An Ambitious Child
Elvis longed for power, even as a child.
He was twelve years old, living in Suchitoto, a city in the Cuscatlán department with cells of National Resistance Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas de la Resistencia Nacional - FARN) — a guerrilla group that emerged in El Salvador in the 1970s — when he first expressed interest in taking up arms.
FARN was part of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para Liberación Nacional - FMLN), an umbrella group for left-wing insurgents in El Salvador that took on the country’s military government in a civil war that lasted from 1979 to 1992.
His brothers had joined the guerrillas young, and Elvis longed to follow in their footsteps. He was fascinated by the authority exercised by his older brother, who was in charge of some guerrilla camps. That power was attractive.
"I wanted to join the guerrillas to have respect, a leadership role,” he told InSight Crime, many years later, as he looked back on his early life.
His brothers prevented him from becoming a guerrilla fighter and he had to settle for being an "ear," providing the guerrillas with information about what was happening in the city or bringing food to the insurgent camps.
In 1992, the war ended, but Elvis' desire to be a leader did not. The poverty and desolation that gripped the country in the aftermath of the conflict allowed certain activities to flourish. On one hand there was religion, in the form of the Pentecostal Church. On the other, was crime and criminal organizations. Elvis chose his new path.
Still a child, he joined an infamous gang called La Suchi, and eventually assumed a leadership role. He was loyal to the gang, and attacked gang members in other districts.
Respect was earned by completing orders and committing violence. The so-called "irons" — knives, machetes and firearms — were used often. The national government, still getting to its feet, was not concerned about these local gangs. Then the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as the MS13, showed up.
Elvis first saw MS13 members at the beginning of the 1990s, in nightclubs in San Salvador, the country’s capital, where gang founders like "Cachi," "Little Man" and "Ozzy" controlled areas and sold drugs.
Gang members began to appear throughout El Salvador just as the war ended, following their expatriation from the United States. The newcomers acted confidently and expressed themselves with authority, were idolized by men and successful with women. According to Elvis, the aspiration of many young women at the time was to become romantically involved with one of the new gangsters.
Elvis marveled at the style of the newly-arrived criminals, including their trademark Dickies-brand trousers and Nike Cortez sneakers. But what caught his attention most was the respect they received.
Joining the Gang
As soon as Elvis became a teenager, he joined the MS13.
In those days, gang aspirants did not have to undergo the life and death tests that Elvis would demand under his leadership. Instead, he had to endure blows from his future comrades for thirteen seconds, as the leader counted slowly.
"I made the decision to get the respect that I had wanted in the guerrilla group through the gang. That's what got me involved," he said of his entrance into the Mara.
For Elvis, respect and leadership are critical to standing out in any area of life, and they are obtained by showing commitment and the ability to deliver. During his time in the gang, he said he demonstrated his reliability through extortion, murder and any other action that was required of him.
His devotion to the gang was so great that he tattooed his face with the gang’s insignia. He complied with the gang’s rules and culture, which, among other things, demanded the control of women as a sign of domination and power.
Women were nothing more than objects in the gang. They were shared like toys, and gang members were given free rein to use them how they liked, sexually and otherwise.
He treated the homegirls — the term for women in the gang — differently, and barely allowed their participation. For him, women were “a lot of problems” and he saw them as a risk. They were the weaker sex, he thought, and they could easily become informers.
With these beliefs, he earned respect and leadership, eventually controlling several cliques and being recognized throughout El Salvador. After establishing himself as the ranflero, or leader, of his clique, he continued to gain more power, until he became a “corredor de programa,” — a regional leader, not only of his clique, but of a cluster of cliques.
This chauvinism became part of his daily life. Through the gang, he achieved what he had longed for: leadership.
Face of Fear, Heart of Love
Elvis is a complex character. His tattooed face immediately recalls his violent and criminal past. However, when he speaks about God, his history falls away. His huge smile gives him an almost affable look.
It’s been more than 15 years since he chose Christ over the ‘Beast,’ as the MS13 gang is also known.
For a time, Elvis was part of the Evangelical Ministry of the Darkness into the Marvelous Light, a congregation of former gang members from different churches that go out to preach on the streets hoping to turn gang members away from sin. They preach passionately, shouting warnings and biblical quotes. Some onlookers listen, others ignore them. On the street, they are known as "the hallelujahs".
Then Elvis founded his own church, Christ Calls You Ministry, which he began building next to his house nine years ago, funded by donations. When telling his story today, Elvis says that he built the church with his own hands. He is not speaking figuratively. He constructed the walls, doors, floor, decoration and everything else in the 80-square-meter space. The decorations are modest — there are no crucifixes or images, only a seat and a hand-painted landscape on the main wall. He dreams of growing the church: God's work is now his life.
It was a long journey to get here. It took more than a decade of being immersed in gang life for Elvis to recognize, in 2004, that he wanted out. He no longer found meaning in gang life.
Elvis was certain that he did not want to die as an MS13 member, but getting out alive was no easy task. Leaving the gang meant leaving his homeboys, the women, the violence and the drugs. He would need to find a new income and be able to feed his family.
He couldn't voice his vulnerabilities, least of all to his homeboys. Showing emotions was seen as a negative, female trait, he explained, and any weakness was preyed upon. The MS13 called their enemies chavalas, meaning girls or women, to symbolize their inferiority. When you enter the gang, "you become more macho," Elvis said.
Every time Elvis cried, he did so alone.
"It was an embarrassment for a gang leader to cry in front of active homeboys. But I cried many times. I cried secretly in the silence of the night. I wanted to transform my life," he explained.
Elvis wanted to know what life could be like for him if he left the gang, but he had no reference for living outside of organized crime. He didn't know how to do anything other than be a gang member, and that terrified him.
That changed one afternoon in 2004. He was at home, looking out the window, heartbroken, when he began to pray.
"God came to me,” he said, of that defining moment.
The next day, he began attending a church in the capital and "became a servant of Christ." Elvis found common ground between his new path and his old criminal life. The subordination and total surrender required by the Church was similar to that demanded by the MS13, and he'd always found it easy to follow his group's strict rules. But the hardest part of leaving the gang was abandoning his role as a leader.
"That was what I never wanted to lose," he recalled.
New Family, Same Hierarchy
In 2004, after becoming a Christian, Elvis served nine months at Quezaltepeque prison in the municipality of La Libertad on outstanding criminal charges. Behind bars, he assumed a pastoral role, leading and caring for his fellow inmates.
After being released, he applied what he'd learned in prison to his new life. He continued preaching and supporting others. He fasted daily for a month at a time. His dedication gained him the respect of his peers.
"When I was with the gang, and since I have been with the Lord, I've always sought leadership roles," he explained.
Through the Church, Elvis discovered that he could be a ranflero once again. The Church believes that the radical conversion and testimony of former gang members who have heard God's call is enough for them to qualify as pastors. No theological training is needed. This favors former gang leaders, whose experience as figureheads in MS13 now helps them save souls from the pulpit.
And becoming a Christian was the only way for Elvis to get out of the gang. Indeed, finding God is the only route by which the MS13 allow a homie to leave alive. Surrendering to God is a personal decision, and one that is respected.
But Elvis had to be certain about his decision to abandon the gang. As several former MS13 members told InSight Crime, "you cannot play with God, nor with the gang." The reality is that even if a homie leaves the gang, he never really stops being a gang member. Most continue to live in the gang area and to interact with gang members. They know never to betray the group. If rules are broken, former members can still face violent consequences.
They also face the rampaging wrath of the law. For the government of President Nayib Bukele's, any homie who was once a gang member, and who still has the tattoos to prove it, is a criminal. Indeed, the government recently declared a "war on gangs", initiating a state of exception which enables it to arrest any citizen and commit abuses of power. Those former gang members like Elvis, who try to reintegrate into society after leaving their lives of crime behind, are caught up in the government's marauding.
* * *
Elvis now preaches to a regular congregation of 15. He is as fervent a pastor as he was a gang leader. He feels “transgressions” against Christian morality just as keenly as he did when homies went against the rules of the Mara. One of those most serious transgressions is homosexuality.
"Where in the Bible does it say that a homosexual can be forgiven by the Lord?" Elvis asked, rhetorically. "Nowhere," he answered.
His view is shared by others. Douglas Dagoberto Coreto Garay, another former gang member and fellow member of the Evangelical Ministry of the Darkness into the Marvelous Light, told InSight Crime that though many members can find Bible verses that help redeem them from crimes including murder and rape, gay men cannot be saved.
"A male lying down with another male is an abomination against God," he said.
The two explain that while former gang members like Elvis can be forgiven by the Church and can in time become pastors, gay men do not have this chance, even if they "repent."
"The Bible says that it is unforgivable," said Coreto Garay.
To earn a living, Elvis has continued to sell clothing smuggled in from the United States from his home. When he isn't working, he travels to MS13 neighborhoods to profess his faith hoping to convince gang members to find a new path. He still enjoys respect among active gang members.
He lives in a small house made out of sheet metal with a dirt floor, which he shares with his wife, daughter and another former gang member.
The relationship between Elvis and his wife is traditional. He believes that the role of women is to take serve their husbands unconditionally. "The Church says so," he explained.
One of the first rituals that Christian conversion requires in order to climb the religious ladder is marriage. If a man is married, he can rise to a more responsible position such as pastor. The selection of a man's partner are in the hands of other men, who look for a woman who will "take good care of him."
In the gang, women are similarly subjugated with threats and violence, both physical and sexual. In the Church, they are a form of chattel, Elvis argued.
"Married women have to be attentive to the Lord, but also their husband. She is no longer free. She is bound by her marriage and she has to submit to her husband,” Elvis said. "She has to wash his clothes, and she has to serve him food. She is a housewife, so she has to keep her house organized and tidy."
He backs his views by citing Bible passages, and says that men, for their part, must take on the responsibility that comes with leadership. They must provide for their wife and their family, as Elvis has always tried to do.
But he considers women to be a temptation for men, who, he argues cannot control their carnal impulses. Women should not adorn their bodies with jewelry nor use make-up, in case they awaken male desire. In the gang he suspected that women's weaknesses meant they could be informers. Now, he uses the story of Adam and Eve to justify his belief that women are corrupters of men.
“Sisters can steal the blessing from any brother,” said Elvis. “Her blouse has to be normal, not low-cut showing her breasts. If a woman goes around with a blouse down to here[...]you may be a Christian, but your eyes are still going to notice.”
* * *
Elvis takes a seat at his kitchen table while his wife serves his evening meal. He doesn't need to move; she attends to everything.
Afterwards, sitting on the sidewalk outside of his home, a neighbor passes by. Elvis invites her to a service, and she tell him that she would like to go, but that she'll have to ask her husband's permission. Elvis isn't surprised. To him, it's better that way.
"She can't make the decision for herself. If the husband tells her that she can't go, she doesn't go. She has to subject herself to him," he said.
God's Forgiveness Never Arrived
It was around 8 p.m. on March 31. Elvis had just finished a religious service and was sitting down for dinner with his family. It was the fourth day of the government's crackdown on the gangs, official in response to a wave of homicides that had rocked El Salvador earlier in March. Groups of police and soldiers patrolled the streets, ceaselessly looking for gang members and men with tattoos.
The mood was tense, especially in poorer neighborhoods with the MS13 has its strongest ties. The municipality of San Juan Opico, where Elvis was living, was no exception. As he finished dinner, a policeman entered his house and took him away by force. They put him in the patrol car and took him to the local police station where they stripped him to the waist, photographed him and posted the photographs on social media.
* * *
Elvis has been in prison for more than two months, starving and attempting to manage his diabetes. He has no lawyer to defend him against charges of belonging to a terrorist organization. Despite this adversity, his wife maintains her iron-clad faith.
"God will set him free because he no longer does wrong," she said.
Meanwhile, the regime continues its Super Mano Dura (Super Iron Fist) policy and the prisons are on the verge of collapse. More than 40,000 people have been captured, among them former homeboys like Elvis, who left the gang to dedicate themselves to God and the Church. God may have forgiven, but the law does not.
*This story is the second in a two-part investigation about how gender, violence and religion intersect in the harsh world of the MS13 gang in El Salvador. It also forms part of InSight Crime's ongoing series on on gender and organized crime in the Americas. Read our full coverage here.