Authorities in El Salvador arrested an alleged pastor for running an extortion ring on behalf of the MS13, which, if true, illustrates the extent to which the gangs have integrated into the social fabric of the communities where they operate.
On October 27, El Salvador's Attorney General's Office arrested the evangelical pastor Pedro Antonio Jimenez De Leon, in addition to 28 alleged members of the MS13 street gang, reported the Associated Press.
Prosecutors say the reverend organized religious gatherings in various neighborhoods of San Salvador in order to collect extortion money for the gang that was passed off as church donations. Authorities also seized two firearms from the pastor's residence they believe belonged to the gang.
According to the Associated Press, it is unknown if Jimenez is an ordained pastor, and two large evangelical churches said they had never heard of him, although many evangelical churches in El Salvador operate as small neighborhood worship centers.
Jimenez faces charges of belonging to a terrorist group, reported La Prensa Grafica. In August, El Salvador's Supreme Court reclassified the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs as terrorist organizations.
InSight Crime Analysis
The arrest of an alleged pastor for his links to the MS13 reflects the complicated role El Salvador's gangs play as both victims and victimizers in their communities. While their political aspirations remain questionable, the gangs have always portrayed themselves as a social phenomenon born out of inequality and injustice.
"We are a social group," Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," told InSight Crime in 2012. "We see ourselves as a large part of society. We believe that the problem here is social exclusion, discrimination, lack of education, lack of employment and unequal treatment by the law."
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
To be sure, the gangs count on a large number of non-members in their communities to carry out small tasks, such as delivering messages and acting as security look-outs. However, the gangs also freely use intimidation and violence to maintain control over these same communities, and the main revenue source for most Salvadoran gangs comes from extortion of local shop owners.
This is not the first example of a criminal group with deep social ties reportedly infiltrating the religious community. In May, Colombian authorities arrested a pastor for allegedly laundering drug money on behalf of the Urabeños in the northwest region of Uraba, the base of operations for the country's most powerful criminal organization.