I am a sociologist. I’m also an Anabaptist. Two years ago, I began work on a dissertation motivated by a relatively straightforward research question: Why are so many members of the transnational gangs of Central America reportedly converting to evangelical Christianity?
The identity transformations required of a gang member who rejects the gang in favor of a teetotaling, tobacco-shunning, domestically oriented evangelical congregation seemed the perfect place to engage my sociological curiosity about religious conversion. But my motives were also personal. As an Anabaptist who’d spent several years working in peace education in Central America, I wondered if the conversionist religion of the conservative, largely Pentecostal evangelicals of Central America can have any this-worldly consequences for the peace so desperately needed in the region.
A wave of criminal violence has bedeviled Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador since the end of the civil wars. They are still among the most violent countries in the hemisphere. All of them have murder rates that approach or exceed 50 homicides a year per 100,000 inhabitants—more than seven times the murder rate in the United States. Many of these murders are carried out by members of the transnational gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara Dieciocho (M-18).
These gangs emerged in the Latino barrios of East Los Angeles as immigrant youth struggled to find jobs, housing, and a distinctive identity, often with an “illegal” status that made them outlaws in their own communities. With the crackdown on immigration in California in the 1990s, thousands of youth—especially Salvadorans who came to the U.S. with their parents as refugees from
El Salvador’s civil war—were rounded up and deported to their “home” country. Between 1994 and 1997, more than 150,000 Central Americans were forcefully deported from the U.S.
With weak Spanish and few employable skills, the deported youth began organizing local gang cells in the barrios of San Salvador. The gangs soon fanned out over the rest of northern Central America. Meanwhile the U.S. “war on drugs” targeted sea and air routes from Colombia to Florida, leading to the opening of new, overland drug routes and the creation of a Mesoamerican bridge to the U.S. drug market. In these weak post-war economies, the infusion of drugs, weapons, and cash provided enormous income opportunities for local gangs willing to serve as foot soldiers for the violent but lucrative drug trade.
Today, Salvadoran police report that 30 percent of the homicides in their country are perpetrated by gang youth, although some observers argue that the figure is somewhat lower. Thousands of Central American boys and men, and a few girls, have traded their youth for protection in the close-knit but extremely violent social world of the MS-13 and the M-18. And there is no question that many of these young people and children have engaged in criminal activity, from petty crime to extortion to murder.
TO UNDERSTAND WHAT was happening, I began collecting stories. Take “Julio,” for example. Julio left his home in a coastal town of Honduras when he was 12 years old. He had grown up accustomed to abuse from his parents, but one day when he asked his mother for money to pay for a school fee, she told him to go find the money himself—she said he was not her son anyway. Angry and disoriented, Julio dropped out of school and fled to the city to live with an aunt. He bought a bicycle and sold newspapers to pay for his keep, but he was small for his age and unable to defend himself against MS-13 gang members who took his money and stole his bicycle. When Julio told his employer about the stolen bicycle, instead of helping him find safety the man sold him a handgun.
At 12 years old, Julio told me, he felt powerful for the first time in his life. He tucked the gun into the front of his pants. Sure enough, the gang members noticed the weapon. They left him alone and his aunt stopped abusing him. The gun, however, couldn’t last forever as only a threat. Before long he had fired the weapon, injuring his aunt. This led to more than a decade of life on the streets.
When members of the M-18 gang invited him to join, Julio felt he finally had found a family that would stick by him. Meanwhile, gang leaders had plenty of “missions” for an adolescent who owned his own gun and wasn’t afraid to use it. Soon even non-gang members were seeking him out to request missions and paybacks. By the time he reached his early 20s, Julio had become a professional hit man, with more than 40 notches in his belt.
JULIO’S STORY, while one of the more violent I encountered, is not unique among the youth of Central America’s gangs. Gang members find that their violent experience and marginal social status equip them with employable skills for Central America’s thriving drug economy and world of organized crime.
After decades of war and increasing insecurity, however, Central Americans are growing weary of violence. So it comes as no surprise that the tattoo-bearing, pistol-packing, ultra-macho gang youth have become public enemy number one.
In working-class neighborhoods, where local gangs levy “war taxes” and buy off police, angry residents seek safety and retribution in vigilante justice and hired killings. “Social cleansing,” the elimination of gang members by police or hired hit men, has become alarmingly common. Most gang deaths are never investigated. Meanwhile, politicians in El Salvador and Honduras have launched their careers by promising “zero tolerance” and mano dura (iron fist) security reforms, including mass incarcerations, repressive police tactics, and the lowering of evidentiary standards in court.
But not all Central Americans advocate addressing gang violence with heavy-handed repression. A surprising number of religious groups—especially the largely Pentecostal congregations of the marginal barrios—have taken a decidedly different approach by founding ministries, houses of refuge, and work programs aimed at rescuing gang members from their allegiance—or captivity—to the gang.
LUZ’S STORY is a good example. The Honduran homemaker lives with her husband and four young daughters in a modest house on the dusty outskirts of a coastal town. In 2002, she began a halfway house for gang members in her home, hosting as many as 14 gang members at a time during the intense crackdown between 2002 and 2006—a time many Hondurans still refer to as “the hunt.” Eventually, Luz received financial and technical help from the Honduran Mennonite Church’s gang reconciliation project.
One of the more remarkable programs in the region, Luz and the Mennonites began by bringing together members of two opposing gangs in adjacent neighborhoods for soccer matches, worship services, job training, conflict transformation workshops, and community service. Over the course of several years, more than 25 of those youth managed to leave the gangs and many have started families and found employment.
The commitment of Luz and the Mennonite church reflects more than simply compassion for those in danger. Their motive, like that of so many other evangelical gang ministry workers I interviewed, is rooted in a deep faith in God’s ability to change individual lives.
“I love to do the Lord’s work,” says Luz. “And what I love, what gives me passion, is when I am with them and I can see the change.” Indeed, many of the young men who lived in Luz’s home have been transformed. Julio, now an itinerant evangelist, is one of those men, and he still refers to Luz as his madre. Julio dates his transformation to the day he met Luz. As a last resort, he had decided to visit a church. Luz sought him out after the service and, sensing his need for an advocate, stated, “From now on, I’m your mother.”
Luz and the Mennonites’ gang-reconciliation project are far from alone in their faith and risk in gang ministry. Of the 27 organizations I found working with gangs and gang members, 19 were religious. The majority of those were led, inspired, or funded by evangelicals. Most of these evangelical-Pentecostal organizations include few, if any, paid staff. They have meager resources and rely on the deep convictions of volunteers. Without exception, the ministers and practitioners describe their work as “restoration”—a term that draws snickers from sociologists and secular nonprofit leaders because of its religious flavor.
Yet I can hardly think of a better term for the kind of transformation that many of the youth from these programs reported. Restoration indicates a reconciliation that is both spiritual and social. By providing youth with individual attention and with social networks for reconstructing their lives, the ministries create opportunities for transformation that few others are willing to extend. Their biggest contribution, however, is their belief that no one—not even the worst gang criminal—is beyond hope.
The Anabaptist sociologist in me still has nagging questions: Are these conversions making a dent in the endemic violence of Central America? Or do they simply distract evangelicals from the hard work of nonviolent peacebuilding? The epidemic of gang violence plaguing northern Central America cannot be magically resolved with revival meetings. Much work remains to provide barrio youth with attractive alternatives to the gang.
A number of Catholic parishes have opted to work with children in at-risk neighborhoods, thus promoting prevention as the best means of fighting gang violence. Furthermore, without structural reforms that provide better public schools and expanded economic opportunity, many children and adolescents will continue to view the gang as the most realistic pathway to opportunity. Neither is police repression likely to stop the violence as long as the U.S.-supported “war on drugs,” which emphasizes crime fighting rather than lowering demand, continues to enable the Capone-like cartel bosses in Juarez and Cali.
IF ANYTHING IS to be done for the thousands of youth caught in the death spiral of gang violence, if aging gang members are to be kept from sinking further into the underworld of organized crime, then it must begin with a mustard seed-like faith in the possibility of human transformation.
But believing in transformation is not easy. Sociology has taught me to recognize the structures that bind people in poverty, addiction, and crime. While understanding how structures contribute to violence has made me more sociologically astute, it has hardly increased my faith in individual transformation, religious or not.
Such is the confounding nature of evangelical faith. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,” wrote the apostle Paul. Perhaps it is naive to believe that a Christian conversion can transform a life deformed by gang violence. Perhaps it’s more foolish to hope that individual transformations can make a difference in a society rife with violence. But if it’s foolishness, then it’s God’s foolishness.
In Central America, evangelicals are among the few willing to take the risks associated with offering gang members a second chance. Personally, I’ve come to believe that peacebuilding begins with something as simple and unassuming as insisting on the possibility of human transformation when society has given up such hope. To believe that even the most hopeless of criminals can be turned upside down by the Holy Spirit is to extend a new possibility to someone who believes that his only way out, as one gang member put it, is in a “pine-box suit.”
Robert Brenneman is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Notre Dame.