In El Salvador, there’s a love/hate relationship between churches and gangs

San Salvador – Now that the euphoria from the beatification of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero has subsided, El Salvador is returning to normal. Unfortunately, “normal” in this small Central American nation includes levels of violence that would be astonishing in most other places.

Saturday night, El Salvador’s notorious criminal gangs abandoned the cease-fire they declared for the beatification, launching attacks on the private homes of police officers, military personnel, judges, and prosecutors. In four such incidents, at least one gang member was killed and several people were wounded.

Such assaults are business as usual in El Salvador, the country that had the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest murder rate in 2014 – 68.6 homicides per 100,000 people, mostly fueled by conflict among the country’s main rival gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18, as well as the equivalent of open warfare between the gangs and El Salvador’s police and military.

Quite often, ordinary people are caught in the crossfire. Salvadorans say you don’t go anywhere here without thinking about the possible dangers and preparing to avoid them.

From a Christian point of view, all that makes El Salvador a study in contradictions.

It’s a pervasively Christian nation, in which Catholics represent 50 percent of the population and a bewildering variety of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements constitute 40 percent. Virtually every street corner features some kind of church, such as “The Church of Divine Prophecy” or “The Community of Jesus Christ Savior.”

Romero himself is a reflection of the country’s deep religiosity, a pastor who literally gave his life defending the poor and victims of human rights abuses at the outset of a bloody civil war in the 1980s.

Yet El Salvador is also a place of chronic, virtually ubiquitous violence, where reports of murders are presented on the nightly news with the same frequency, and the same sense of normalcy, as updates on the weather and sports.

Against that backdrop, it’s inevitable that the relationship between the churches and the gangs here is complex.

On one hand, the churches are natural enemies of the maras, as the gangs here are known. They oppose the drug trade that’s the financial bread and butter for the gangs, the use of violence, and other forms of illegality. They’re rivals for the hearts and minds of young Salvadorans choosing a path in life.

On the other hand, the gangs also demonstrate remarkable respect for the churches. Members say there are really only two ways to leave a gang – death, or a genuine decision to change your life that almost always involves religion.

In turn, most pastors see the gangs as missionary territory, being willing to comfort members in need and generally not acting as agents of the police.

On the afternoon of Romero’s beatification, a former member of the 18th Street gang – named for 18th Street in the Ramparts section of Los Angeles, where El Salvador’s gangs were born in the 1980s – arrived with a police escort at a downtown San Salvador hotel to speak with reporters from Crux about life within what many people here regard as a “shadow state.”

“William,” the pseudonym he now uses, didn’t leave the gang because of a religious conversion. He was arrested in 2010 and eventually provided information that led to the arrest of 30 other gangsters. He’s now living in the equivalent of a witness protection program, facing a death sentence for betrayal from the gang he once regarded as his “family.”

The police officer who accompanied him also insisted on being referred to by a pseudonym, “Marcelo,” reflecting the risks of reprisal that are ordinary fare for anti-gang units of the local police.

William, now 30, joined the 18th Street gang in 1998 at the age of 13. During the 12 years he was inside he moved up through the ranks, reaching the level of a regional boss, and admits to having been involved directly or indirectly in at least 10 murders.

Perhaps the most chilling moment of the conversation with William came when he described orchestrating the murder of a bus driver who was targeted for providing information to a rival gang. William knew the driver personally, and delivered the final shot that killed him.

Asked whether killing someone he knew was emotionally difficult, he said: “Yeah, I knew the guy, but I didn’t really like him.”

William told Crux that he was baptized a Catholic, received First Communion and confirmation, and carried a residual respect for the faith. When asked whether he would have carried out an order to kill a priest, for instance, he said he wouldn’t.

“If the call had come, I wouldn’t have done it because at one point in my life I made a personal promise to never kill a good Catholic or a good Christian,” he said. “I would have found a way around it, so I wouldn’t have to do it.”

William said that in the culture of the gangs, there’s actually a strong deference to the churches.

“The church was always respected,” he said.

“Some people actually use the church as a sort of mask,” he said. “They’ll go to church to make it look like they’re not really in a gang, to hide what they’re actually doing. Those guys always ended up dead, because you’re not allowed to mess with the church.”

Marcelo agreed.

“The gangs will respect a choice to reform yourself, to clean up your life, for instance by getting married and starting a family or becoming a really religious person,” he said. “They’ll let you leave for those reasons.”

Yet he said that tolerance comes with a caveat: “They’ll watch you, and if turns out you were lying, that you’re keeping a foot in your old life, they’ll come after you.”

Mike and Jessica Brown, missionaries from the Assemblies of God who live in the Salvadoran city of Santa Rosa an hour outside San Salvador, confirmed that being authentically religious engenders surprising admiration.

Mike said he felt a call from God roughly 18 months ago to do mission work in El Salvador, so he, Jessica, and their four children sold their home and all their possessions in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, raised money to found a mission, and moved into a gang-infested neighborhood.

A former member of the American Navy, Brown has launched a sort of boot camp experience for young Salvadoran males, attempting to reach young people before they’re enrolled in a gang. A former construction worker, he and his missionary team also build houses for the poor, including some gang members.

“Once they find out you’re a man of God, they don’t bother you,” he said. “They show great respect.”

That’s not to say pastors in El Salvador, whether foreigners or locals, don’t run real risks. Marcelo, the police official, said that in 20 years of experience, he’s not aware of a Catholic priest being targeted by the gangs, but he does know of cases of Protestant pastors who were killed for cooperating with the police.

Were a Catholic priest to do the same thing, he has no doubt the gangs would lash out.

“There’s no rule that says you can’t kill a priest,” Marcelo said. “Based on the level of violence that I’ve seen, I certainly believe it’s possible.”

In general, Marcelo said, the gangs don’t perceive priests as a threat because most have made a strategic decision in favor of dialogue.

“They’re generally seen as trying to help young people, including those in gangs,” he said. “If a gang member comes to a priest for something, wants to talk about some situation for instance, the priests welcome them. The priests will visit them in prison, and they don’t report the gang members to the police.”

Another interesting feature of the relationship between gangs and churches in El Salvador is that local experts estimate that as many as 60 percent or more of gang members come from Evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds, despite the country’s traditionally Catholic identity.

There’s no clear explanation for that, although one factor may be that the Evangelicals and Pentecostals tend to be more visible in the poor neighborhoods where youth are proportionately more likely to end up in a gang.

“I have to say, I don’t see any Catholic priests when I move around the neighborhoods where we make home visits,” Mike Brown said.

Despite the respect gangs here display to religion, there’s not much evidence that the churches have had much success in reducing the level of violence and criminality.

The Rev. Antonio Rodriguez is a Salvadoran priest known for his outreach to the gangs. During a short-lived gang truce that began in 2012, he was charged with criminal association for allegedly smuggling cell phones to gang kingpins in prison and was briefly forced to leave the country.

A member of the Passionist religious order, Rodriguez said he doesn’t believe the churches have had much impact. He told a story of once taking a nun and the superior of his order to visit a gang leader in prison.

“They asked him what the church could do to change the situation,” Rodriguez said. “His answer was, you’re too late. If you’d tried this at the beginning, maybe it would have changed something, but not now.”

William, the former gang member, concurred.

“They’ve tried different strategies,” he said, referring both to the churches and the government, “and none of them have really worked.”

“Crackdowns force the gangs to organize themselves better to stay one step ahead, so it actually makes them stronger,” William said. “When there’s a truce, the leaders agree among themselves not to do major crimes but all the small crimes actually multiply, because you have to make up the money you’re losing.”

“I don’t think things are going to change,” he said.

The Browns, the Pentecostal couple, expressed a more optimistic view.

Mike told the story of a gang leader named Enrique that he befriended. At the time they met, Enrique’s wife had just had a baby, and Brown said he invited him to bring the child to church so they could pray for his safety.

Mike and Jessica made a habit of visiting Enrique’s home, bringing gifts for the baby and expressing a genuine interest in his welfare. Enrique began attending church, they said, and is trying to turn his life around.

Asked whether he favored dialogue with the gangs aimed at producing a new truce, or the “iron fist” approach advocated by more conservative sectors of Salvadoran society, Brown suggested a third possibility.

“Have they tried love?” he asked. “I’m telling you, in my experience it’s the only thing that really works.”