Christianity is growing rapidly in El Salvador — along with gang violence and murder rates

San Salvador, El Salvador – Elmer Villalobos was 26 when the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang grew irritated that the private bus firm where Elmer’s older brother, Gustavo, worked refused to pay extortion fees in their neighborhood of Cuscatancingo.

Gunmen from the gang – sometimes known for wearing body and face tattoos and fighting to the death — stormed the bus station, sending drivers and toll-takers scurrying into a nearby eatery that made the locally famous “Pupusa,” El Salvador’s twist on a quesadilla or arepa. The gang members opened fire on Gustavo, who was peaceably dining, shooting him eight times and causing his death.

Central America is a region racked with drug and gang-related violence. Its murder rates are so high that Villalobos and others compare it to a war zone. New statistics from 2014 indicate El Salvador is re-capturing the ignoble distinction (from Honduras) of being the most murderous nation state on earth.

In March, at least 481 people were murdered in El Salvador, a record rate of 16 people per day and a 52 percent increase from the same period last year and the most violent month in 10 years. The numbers threaten the leadership of leftist president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who has proposed less mano dura (“iron fist”) crackdowns and more prevention, social programs and prison reform.

But along with violence, religion also is seeing an uptick in El Salvador, Villalobos said.

“You see church growth and crime growth at the same time,” said Villalobos, who is active in the evangelical movement in El Salvador. “We see Catholics and Christians who don’t change their heart. They come to church to pray but don’t change their values.”

Evangelical Christianity is growing robustly in El Salvador, rising to 40 percent of the population (50 percent are Roman Catholic). But, so far, the booming evangelical megachurches seem ill-equipped to make a dent in the astronomical murder rates and widespread extortion problem.

Villalobos said many gang members in El Salvador come from evangelical families. “Families are active in church but sometimes forget their kids,” he said.

Local journalists and pastors said recently that up to 60 percent of gang members come from evangelical family backgrounds. When I pressed them on the source for that statistic, no one could produce specifics, saying it comes from informal surveys of gang members rather than a scientific study. But this rumored stat raises the question of what Protestant and Catholic churches can do about the violence in Central America.

In the capital of San Salvador, men with sawed off shotguns guard customers at gas stations, shopping malls and fast food outlets. Gangs extort from many small and mid-size businesses to pay for protection. Most public buses stop running around 8 p.m., and working people scurry home before gangs take over barrios in bloody after-hours battles. The U.S. State Department warns about traveling to the country where thousands of known gang members from several gangs including MS-13 and Eighteenth Street (M18) kidnap, murder and extort terror on the city.

“We’re very worried at the levels of insecurity and violence across Central America and El Salvador,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in San Salvador in January.

As a 2012 truce between those two gangs collapsed in the past year, El Salvador has become the most dangerous country in the world with 3,942 murders in 2014 – roughly 11 per day – in a country of 6.1 million people, according to research firm InSightCrime. That’s a 57 percent jump from 2013 when El Salvador was the third-most deadly country behind Honduras and Venezuela.

The violence creates a chilling effect on the nation’s economy as few multinationals want to locate factories in the region, and few tourists venture to the nation because of the violence. And small business owners are intimidated to pay gangs for protection, which throws hurdles into the free market. The country has hired former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to advise them on how to stem the violence.

At the same time, El Salvador shows signs of Catholic and evangelical Christian life at every turn. Churches blanket the city with billboards and buses advertising Jesus Christo. Churches own roughly 30 media outlets in El Salvador, including some of the most influential in the country.

Megachurches such as Baptist Tabernacle and Elim both own TV stations, radio stations and newspapers. These churches draw as many as 70,000 people to services on Sundays. Small group Bible studies and home churches are present across the city. Just 9 percent of Salvadorians claim no religion.

“Most of the churches in Central America have been local and insular,” said Tito Muralles, a director of an independent Christian newspaper in Guatemala called La Palabra. “We’re accustomed to seeing crime already. It’s normal. When you see bodies fall next to you, it doesn’t surprise you.”

News personality Edwin Gongora of Orbita TV said Christian media and churches in the country largely focus on music, preaching, teaching and the word of God.

“Some are starting to shift to talk more on social issues such as violence,” he said. Gang members often become more hardened in prison and, if they try to leave a gang after prison, are often murdered by one side or another. In the past, gangs would allow a member to leave for only a few reasons, one being if the gang member wanted to pursue a devout Christian life. According to researchers, gangs would sometimes monitor the person to make sure they remained devout and did not join another gang.

Surely some pastors and churches are working to combat criminality in their neighborhoods. But many believe churches can and should play a larger role in addressing the social problems of crime, poverty and economic development.

Villalobos said Edgar López Bertrand Jr., a pastor of local megachurch Tabernaculo Biblico Bautista (slogan: “Amigos de Israel”) interviewed imprisoned gang leaders during the recent truce between the country’s two main gangs. A Catholic chaplain Bishop Fabio Colindres helped broker the temporary truce between the gangs according to the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University.

Mario Vega, senior pastor of the other megachurch in San Salvador called Elim Christian Mission (Mision Cristiana Elim Internacional), told criminal justice news site Sala Negra that he believes discussions with gang leaders can improve the situation. He said the problem of mafia isn’t easy to fix as 10 percent of the population are part of gangs, the gang problems stem from economic inequality and infiltrate nearly every aspect of El Salvadoran society.

“The worst thing is that we as Salvadorians are getting used to this kind of life,” said the Rev. Carlos B. Calderon, who is pastor of the 60-member Iglesia Alianza Cristiana y Missionera church. “We are losing our capacity to feel pain, our capacity for shame. We see the violence happening, and we are not surprised anymore.”

He said government plans from the right and left have largely failed so far. Idea sharing by nonprofits and churches could have an impact. He noted that gang leaders actually respect Christian leaders and don’t attack them. But, what would happen if the star pastors at megachurches started preaching against the gangs and telling their

congregation to stop paying extortion fees?

“They would say, ‘Pastor, will you help me? Will you protect me? Will you prevent my employees from being killed and my business from being set on fire?’” he said.

Calderon said it is painful for pastors to admit that children from their congregations are heading to street gangs and that churches bear some responsibility. Some churches in Central America, he said, have focused too much on adding members and gaining more influence over rival churches. “We have been careless about discipleship and helping families,” he said.

After thinking about the dilemma at a recent dinner in San Salvador, Calderon sighed and said he and his fellow pastors must exercise more conscience at some point, even in the face of danger.

“If God doesn’t help us to raise leaders to change directions of the country, there is no real hope for us,” he said. “Every pastor should renounce this kind of sin openly.”

The violent gangs of El Salvador began in the United States as Latinos formed gangs to battle other street gangs in Los Angeles and other cities. As members were arrested and deported to El Salvador in the 1990s, their gangs filled a power vacuum in their home country that was fresh off a civil war that stretched from 1979 to 1992. The Cold War era that saw Marxists and Maoist insurgencies throughout Latin America subsided and created a further power vacuum for drug and extortion gangs to fill.

Villalobos, whose brother was killed by gang violence, said he and other neighborhood kids marveled at gang members who started populating their poverty-stricken barrio in 1992.

“Many of us youngsters liked how they dressed and their graffiti. We saw it not as a style of living but a new mood,” he said. “When we saw it wasn’t just a dress code, we decided not to admire them anymore.”

Villalobos, who is now 36, and his brother came from a poor family of six children. His parents eventually split, and his mother couldn’t afford to keep more than three of her children, so she sent three of them to cousins to raise. Villalobos didn’t meet these siblings until his mother’s funeral a few years ago.

He found his way to the Universidad de El Salvador, majored in journalism and took a job at local news outlet Diario El Mundo, the same year his brother was killed. His news beat was covering the crime and violence plague on San Salvador at El Mundo and another newspaper.

“When I covered crime, I tried to portray the effect it had on people left behind – the siblings, parents and friends of those murdered,” he said. “My stories tried to show the effects of crime and the pain it causes.”

Now, he writes for a magazine about health care.

“Violence is a plague. It’s an illness,” Villalobos said. “Like Ebola, it’s contagious. It spreads quickly.”