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Being a former Christian gang member in El Salvador, a country with no place for the repentant

2022-05-23T04:00:41.954Z

During the emergency regime, the Nayib Bukele government has captured anyone who is or appears to be a gang member, including former members of the maras who converted to Christianity.



Douglas Dagoberto Coreto, formerly known as 'Graffiti' in the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), hasn't gone out to preach the Gospel with his megaphone in the streets of Sonsonate for more than a month.

On the night of April 8, during the thirteenth day of the emergency regime decreed by the Salvadoran Congress, the police took him prisoner.

Hours before his capture, Coreto told EL PAÍS in a WhatsApp message that he would not run away if they came for him, that he had no pending debt with the law and that he left everything in God's hands.

But he sensed that it would happen soon, especially since his tattoos give him away: the authorities do not care if the tattooed person is active or not.

"What they want to see is stained people who appear in the news," Douglas lamented before his arrest.

That night, after dinner, they took him away.

He put up no resistance.

They put him in the patrol car, handcuffed him, moved him and stripped him naked before the cameras to show him off and accuse him of belonging to terrorist organizations on social networks.

Fourteen years ago, while serving time for aggravated robbery, Douglas embraced Christianity to leave the gang and try to integrate into society.

He did not have many other options: the Salvadoran State does not offer any reintegration alternative to people like him.

Today he is imprisoned in the Izalco prison and a captive in a country that is not interested in socially integrating former gang members.

Salvadoran men jailed during the state of emergency, on March 28, 2022. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On March 27, after the deadliest weekend in recent Salvadoran history that left a balance of 87 murders due to the rupture between the Government and the MS13, according to an investigation by the digital newspaper El Faro, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved an exceptional measure that allows law enforcement to detain anyone for up to 15 days without the right to defense.

It also suspends freedom of association, the inviolability of correspondence and wiretapping of communications without a court order.

This provision was extended on March 24 for an additional 30 days and, tentatively, will end on May 27.

So far in the emergency regime, EL PAÍS has documented at least 14 cases of former members of the MS13 converted to Christianity who have been arrested and charged because of their appearance.

These are not isolated cases: reports of arbitrary arrests have multiplied in the last month and a half.

On April 8, four employees of the cyber café 1,200 Café were detained by the Army while leaving work and later displayed on the networks as gang members.

Thanks to social pressure they were released the next day.

Two days later, the tattoo artist Dennis Mauricio Pineda, whom the authorities nicknamed "Stained", was captured in his house and publicly accused of being a member of illegal groups.

According to five Salvadoran non-governmental organizations, 338 complaints of human rights violations have been documented,

If the government hunt has affected people who had no ties to the maras, for the converted former gang members there is practically no escape.

His situation embodies that dead end that exists in El Salvador, a society marked by violence that admits no other response to the gang problem than more violence.

The lord, suspicion and indifference

Becoming an evangelical is the only means that the Mara Salvatrucha approves of to “calm down”, so that its members disassociate themselves from the gang.

"It's the only thing they respect," says Douglas.

"You can not play with God, or with the gang."

To get an idea of ​​how many ex-mara members there are in this situation, at the beginning of 2019 it was estimated that there were around 1,600 converts in the San Francisco Gotera prison.

But on the streets, the number is unknown.

Since the gangs appeared on Salvadoran soil in the early 1990s, the prison system has relied on evangelical churches as an antidote to prison deficiencies and almost as the only path to rehabilitation.

However, the conversion from

homeboy

to brother has one condition: not to remove the tattoos alluding to the gang.

Whoever does it, pays with his life.

And few people know that: the letters of the gang do not belong to those who carry them, but to the Mara Salvatrucha.

A former member of the mara, nicknamed "Maniatico", who is now a Christian preacher. Carlos García

For evangelical doctrine, anyone who believes in Christ's forgiveness, makes their faith public and defends the Bible can be absolved of their sins.

But Salvadoran society does not forgive so easily.

Although the gang members change the way they speak, dress and relate to bear witness to their transformation, this conversion is controversial for a part of the population that does not believe in redemptions and is fed up with the violence they have spread.

They think that it is an excuse without conviction, easy and a way of disguising to continue committing crimes.

"For a human being, a gang member will never change," says a resigned pastor and former gang member who asks not to be identified and who, for the moment, has been able to elude capture.

"Now that we have wanted to rehabilitate ourselves, unfortunately the opportunity is not given, because for many people we will be scourges, rats, antisocials, garbage, but for Christ we are worth the blood of Christ, brother."

A Protestant theology historian — who asks not to reveal his identity for fear of reprisals — analyzes this rejection in this way: the forgiveness that redeems the gang member of his crimes is a magical effect that only benefits him, he explains, but “justice is left in background".

This complicates the new life of the convert, because whoever surrounds him "has not changed with his conversion."

And, of course, there is the fact that several gang members have used the figure of a believer to distract and continue committing crimes.

There are Christians who are “wolves in sheep's clothing,” says José Miguel Rodríguez, an inactive or calm gang member, as they say in gang jargon: “I have seen people who have done that just to pass the water.

And that has caused these same people to commit crimes again and people say: 'Oh, no, these Christians are breaking their pass (permit)!'

And they take the just for sinners, as they are doing right now.”

Even with its flaws, Christianity has been the only model that has produced results in terms of rehabilitation and reinsertion of gang members.

For decades there has been no government program in El Salvador that has provided a sustained solution to this population.

"Midget", another former member of a gang who has resorted to the path of Christianity.Carlos Garcías

On June 19, 2019, when President Nayib Bukele spoke for the first time about his Government's Territorial Control Plan, its main objectives were to recover the territory gained by the gangs, limit their expansion, minimize violence and improve the conditions of the centers. penalties.

However, he omitted to refer to his plans in relation to this type of prisoners and released prisoners.

Later, thanks to the only two pages of this project that were made public, it became known that the plan included "rehabilitation and reinsertion of the offender."

But so far the details are unknown.

The Directorate of Penal Centers has the 'Zero Leisure' Plan that employs a thousand prisoners from the entire system to carry out various social and administrative tasks, insufficient for the 16,000 gang members who, according to the president's figures, were in prison before the exception regime.

Since the launch of this measure, more than 27,000 people have ended up joining the lists of people accused of being gang members.

José Miguel Rodríguez is not afraid to reveal his identity or point out that he was nicknamed 'Demon' within the MS13.

"In my 21 years of being part of the gang, I never saw that the government cared or did a reinsertion project," says the 36-year-old man, who has been a Pentecostal Christian for seven years.

Demon says he is tired of public rejection and criticizes the fact that several officials from the Arena and FMLN political parties, from which Bukele emerged, also stained their hands with blood during the Civil War and no one judges them as harshly as they do.

“There are a lot of people there who got involved in those aspects of abuse of power when they were in government during the war and post-war times.

Hey and there they go!

Now they are the fathers of the country, they are the ones who have the companies, they are even the ones who are in the security cabinet”, he lets out irritated.

A soldier inspects a passenger bus at a military checkpoint in the town of Tonacatepeque, El Salvador, on May 5. APHOTOGRAPH (Getty Images)

The moment

Shortly before his capture, Douglas was happy, at least that's how he showed it in his WhatsApp status when he shared a video smiling with his new wife.

From the beginning of the emergency regime it was clear that he would not flee, but after the escalation of arrests he knew that they would come for him because of his tattoos and that they would make him a target of official propaganda.

Then he released from his cell phone: "At least they won't find me doing anything wrong."

"Do you have any plan in case they catch you?" He was asked the afternoon before his arrest.

“No hombeee, the truth is not hombeee!

It's just that I'm not going to run or anything like that, man.

Never!

I don't owe anything to the authorities, whoever owes goes.

And if I don't go out it's because I know they're going to take me.

It's not because I owe these chuladas, I don't owe them anything hombee ”, he insisted.

Around nine o'clock he was on his way to the police station.

It was also night when José Elvis Herrera finished the service.

He was about to have dinner with his family when the police broke in and took everyone out, but only he accompanied them.

It had been more than 15 years since this man had chosen God over the gang and nearly nine since he had become pastor of his church, Christ calls you to the Ministry.

Today his congregation is no longer pastored by him, he is locked up, accused of being a terrorist and suffering from diabetes without medication.

In addition, he had to endure the social lynching that people like the president promote on social networks, violating the presumption of innocence over and over again.

On March 31, Bukele retweeted the front page of the official El Salvador newspaper, which featured a photo collage of shirtless, tattooed men.

The first on the top left was Elvis, publicly accused of being a "ringleader."

He looked serious, sorrowful, without the typical button-down shirt that Christians wear to show his vocation.

It had been stripped away to highlight her tattoos.

The ones on his forehead and her cheeks weren't enough.

The official narrative has a penchant for exhibitionism, for the audiovisual and the popular.

He likes to demonstrate that the muscle of the State punishes gang members with whip marks, as well as prison overcrowding and humiliation, leading them to go hungry with two rations of tortillas and beans a day, as the president himself presumes.

Today the little sister will have time to pray pic.twitter.com/WxwFaIjtjQ

– Christian Guevara 🇸🇻 (@ChrisGuevaraG) May 6, 2022

Meanwhile, a large part of Salvadorans support their decisions, according to the latest CID Gallup poll.

They applaud him and celebrate that show that he exhibits on the internet.

The 78% of society that approves the anti-gang measures is more polarized than ever, defending the president's work with disqualifications in the face of the slightest dissent in the official discourse.

Meanwhile, the destiny of all those men covered in tattoos who renounced their particular Satan live today in a country that only offers them the security of ending up in jail.

the now

After Douglas's capture, his phone passed into the hands of his wife.

“You can't imagine how much it hurts but I know it's a test.

Because we just got married and all this happened.

I know it's because we have to be tested, to know that we said we were going to be through thick and thin, ”he said shortly after his arrest with a broken voice.

“I know that soon the Lord will give him victory and he will come out of that place again and he will go around preaching the word of the Lord.”

Douglas, like the more than 30,000 alleged gang members captured during this regime, have been charged behind closed doors without the presence of a lawyer, violating human rights, as Amnesty International denounced in an open letter to the president.

When Douglas's wife went to the Attorney General's Office to request a court-appointed attorney, they refused.

She was told that they would assign the one on duty when the day of the hearing arrived.

He couldn't do more.

Converts without tattoos have better luck.

Gumaro (fictitious name to protect his identity) can give reason for that.

The young man does not have a single drop of ink on his skin and that has him free.

He left the gang a couple of years ago to "devote himself to the things of God," as he says, but nothing saves him from police harassment.

Living in a marginalized area is living in a gang area and living in a gang area is being targeted by the police.

And that has been Gumaro these last few days.

Relatives of people detained during the state of emergency wait for their relatives outside the La Esperanza prison, in Ayutyxtepeque, El Salvador, on May 17, 2022. JOSE CABEZAS (REUTERS)

After the PNC took a friend of his, the police came back for more.

The confusion and misinformation took his anger out on Gumaro.

"They kicked me," he says.

“They took me out of the patio, they took me to one side of the bathrooms and there they made me walk on my knees, brother.

They treated me like a dog, they told me: Are you a damn gang member, right?

And I just stayed quiet, I didn't answer anything.

They beat him with the toes of their boots on his back, buttocks and knees, but he held on.

Then they took off his shirt, took pictures of him and confiscated his cell phone.

“They didn't find anything that compromised me.

I trust that God is with me,” he throws out with relief.

the elusive

Another former gang member, 'Smokey', had been able to dodge the thousands of arrests that the Government boasts of until Thursday, when after living more than a month and a half locked up and with no other consolation than reading the Bible, he was arrested.

“Here I am trapped.

I can't go out because of this situation that this crazy old man has caused, ”he lamented days ago.

He no longer went to worship, nor to that low-paid job that he lost as soon as he decided to lock himself up.

He was bored, penniless, disappointed and deeply afraid that they would take him away.

“I pray to God that this is not going to happen, because it would ruin everything for me,” he pleaded.

The Government “should investigate the crazy people (gang members) who are active and punish them because convicting someone who is retired doesn't work.

What he is going to do is throw civilians on top of him,” he added before the police arrived for him on May 19.

Like him, many former Christian gang members are going through a test in which their faith is insufficient to placate a government and a people that reject them.

They are in a dead end where there is no room for rehabilitation and there is room for repression.

A place where punishment has more applause than peace and reintegration.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2022-05-23

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