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How to Leave MS13 Alive


Ernesto Deras cannot explain why he got up from his seat, approached the front of a church in the Panorama City neighborhood of Los Angeles, and started crying uncontrollably.

“Perdón, perdón, perdón,” the man known to his fellow gang members as Satan, repeated as he fell to his knees.

“I had been shot. I had had broken bones. I was in jail,” he told me this year, some two decades after he embraced God. But none of that had made him cry. “I felt like a man who didn’t have tears, but that day, something, something powerful happened.”

Other former gang members tell similar stories. The church -- in particular the evangelical Pentecostal church -- drew them into its fold and wrenched them, prayer service by prayer service, from the tenacious grip of the gangs. The gangs, in turn, respected this exit. Becoming an active member of a religious community remains virtually the only way someone can leave the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as the MS13, alive.

*This article was originally published by the New York Times and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

There is little reliable data on how many members have left the MS13 by joining a church, but in a recent Florida International University survey of nearly 1,200 gang members in El Salvador’s jails, 58 percent said the church was the “most appropriate organization to lead rehabilitation programs.”

The stories of these gang members’ experiences with religion give us clues about how to reduce the influence of the MS13 in the United States and other countries where it operates.

The gang carries out horrific crimes, but after spending three years studying the MS13, my colleagues and I concluded that the best way to diminish the gang’s appeal to vulnerable young men is to think of it as more of a social organization than a criminal enterprise.

The MS13 began in the early 1980s when a group of Salvadoran refugees gathered to listen to heavy metal, drink alcohol and smoke marijuana in Central Los Angeles. Like other so-called stoner gangs in the city at the time, the MS13 evolved into a violent group, in part for self-defense, in part because of criminal ambition. In the years since, it has spread to a half-dozen countries, becoming a priority for more than one government, including the Trump administration, which has made brash, often false statements about the gang.

President Trump, like several previous presidents, has sought to deal with gangs through incarceration, stiffer prison sentences and deportation. Yet the MS13 has flourished for almost four decades, largely because its reason for being transcends monetary or capital gain.

SEE MORE: MS13 Profile and News

The MS13 is like a surrogate family. Members join for many reasons but mostly because they are vulnerable, marginalized and lacking any clear way to climb the social and economic ladder. What they find in the gang is a close-knit group that they think of as source of protection.

MS13 members call this cocoon “el barrio.” El barrio is part of a mythic notion that if you commit yourself to something that is bigger than yourself, you will be rewarded with respect, status and comrades who will have your back when someone from outside threatens you.

SEE MORE: The MS13 - Investigation

El barrio is an ethos that can be evoked for good and for bad, including extreme violence, predatory criminal behavior and brutal forms of social control that have led to thousands of deaths in the United States and across Central America.

Both the church and the gang are tightly knit social organizations, places where people find an alternative family that require deep emotional and time commitments. Church members address one another as brother and sister, and like gang members, they are expected to look out for one another, providing jobs, shelter and food when needed. Churches are also highly patriarchal.

Many evangelical churches tackle the gang menace not just on a spiritual and an emotional level but also a practical one. They provide jobs and job contacts, informal child-care services, and access to health care. Perhaps most important, they monopolize their members’ time. Church services happen every night or nearly every night, coinciding with the hours when gang members are expected to “hangear,” as they like to say in Spanglish, with fellow gang members.

This transition to religion suggests that we should devote an equal amount of resources and rhetoric to creating an alternative to the MS13’s barrio, a space that nurtures youth rather than marginalizes, incarcerates and deports them.

Safe spaces include religious institutions but could also include gang-free schools where at-risk youth get emotional as well as practical and financial support. While law enforcement will remain a necessary component in anti-gang strategy, commitment to these types of prevention and exit strategies is the only way to blunt the gang’s influence over the long term. But these programs receive pennies compared to the recent law enforcement initiatives aimed at the gang.

Dramatic as his breakdown in the church was, Mr. Deras’s slide from gang life happened over time, as he worked to integrate himself into his new religious community. It was also a while before Mr. Deras felt that he could tell the gang leaders he was going to church regularly. When he did, they didn’t tell him to stop but rather, the opposite: embrace it, they said.

*This article was originally published by the New York Times and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

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