From Pistols To Prayers: How MS-13 Gang Members in Honduras Are Turning to Churches to Escape a Life of Crime

Rolling the beads of a rosary between her fingers, it would be hard to guess who Maria Rivera might be praying for.

For years, she has dedicated her days to helping some of the most vulnerable people in San Pedro Sula, Honduras—as well as some of the most dangerous.

As a church volunteer who also helps out at the community outreach center in Chamelecón, a suburb of San Pedro Sula to which visitors of Honduras are advised to "avoid all travel," Rivera, whose real name has been withheld for fear of retribution, spends much of her time with members of some of the world's most notorious gangs, including members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 and Barrio 18, the18th Street gang.

"They come because they don't want to stay in gangs," Rivera says. "They want a change of lifestyle."

'Generally, if a gang member leaves a gang, he's dead'

In recent years, more gang members have been turning to her church in a bid to change their ways, the volunteer says. However, hers is not the only one.

Across San Pedro Sula, Catholic and Protestant churches across the city have become beacons for gang members desperate for an exit from the path of crime.

Of course, the idea of turning to faith to turn one's life around is far from a novel concept. Throughout the course of human history, people around the world have been turning to religion for guidance and salvation.

For gang members in Honduras, however, the church does not only offer redemption; it also represents one of the few ways for members to leave a gang without having to flee the country.

"Generally, if a gang member leaves a gang, he's dead," says Pastor Alwin Flores, a community leader in one of San Pedro Sula's toughest neighborhoods, tells Newsweek.

In many of the city's neighborhoods, says Flores, whose real name has been withheld for fear of retribution, gangs hold control over different streets. And the boundaries they set are not ones that their members—or residents—will want to cross.

"Some children cannot even walk between territories because they could die if they do," Flores says.

"The population here has learned not to cross certain borders, but it becomes more common when people don't know the area," Flores says.

For gang members, there is a separate set of boundaries that you do not cross and one of them, the pastor says, is leaving.

Of course, how strictly that rule is enforced depends on the gang. Some leaders are more lenient, while others would rather see a member leave in a body bag than walk away from the group.

Gang leaders, Flores says, "are always afraid that a former gang member might speak to another gang...they're afraid they're going to tell a rival gang their secrets." The easiest way to prevent that from happening, of course, is to give members good reason not to leave the gang.

'Where no one else can reach, there is the church'

Among many groups, however, there are at least three ways to leave the gang, the pastor says: "One way is by leaving the city," he says. Another is by leaving the country. Or, they can "look for a church."

Why the church? With much of the country split between the Protestant and Catholic faiths, the church is one of the few institutions, if not the only institution, that most gang leaders in Honduras are willing to respect.

"Where no one else can reach, there is the church," Flores says.

Or, as one resident, a mother who recently tried—and failed—to flee to the U.S. with her young children to escape the neighborhood's violence puts it: They are "afraid of going to hell."

Gang leaders know their way of life may not be entirely consistent with at least one of the Ten Commandments, and so "they're afraid of messing with the church," the mother, whose name has also been withheld says.

"They respect the churches," she says of local gang leaders, while many residents, and in particular young men, "join the churches to avoid the gangs."

One former MS-13 gang member told Newsweek that he personally has Flores to thank "for a lot."

The former MS-13 member, whose identity has been withheld for fear of retribution, says he turned to Flores for support after making the decision to leave the notorious gang.

While MS-13 leadership in this neighborhood, he says, are more lenient when it comes to allowing members to leave than other gangs, such as Barrio 18, the former member says the church has helped resist "pressure to rejoin" and find work.

"They provide me with help and give me work," he says.

'He said he killed because his children didn't have food'

Meanwhile, another former gang member helped by Flores has been able to go from "killing someone for 50 lempiras ($2)" to working full-time at a factory and becoming a regular at church.

"I had asked him to change his lifestyle, but he said he couldn't change because he didn't have the opportunities to. He said he killed because his children didn't have food," the pastor says.

"I told him that the money you get by killing people, that's stained with blood and he said, 'that's how I feed my kids, with that bloodstained money.'"

But, Flores says he persisted, telling the former gang member, who was in his 20s: "'You're killing people who are innocent—good people.' That really touched him... A few days later, he found me in the church and asked me to help him find a job."

Leaving his gang was made easier by the fact that "the gang was actually scared of him because he was so violent," Flores says. But even under his circumstances, finding a church to join and leaving his community were integral to securing his release from the gang.

"For young people to leave their gang, they need to leave their communities and find a job, join a church," Flores says. And the church, he adds, helps them do that.

Rivera says that many of the gang members who turn up at her church, as well as at her local outreach center are also eager to "learn a profession."

They sign up for workshops and come away having learned a new trade, from carpentry to hairdressing.

"There is a spiritual ministering, but there is also professional training," Rivera says.

"Many children and many young men and are now barbers," for example, she says. "They're employed in their neighborhoods and they are known as ex-gang members...and it all started with our classes."

That is another reason, Flores says, why gang leaders respect the churches: they see the positive impact they have had in their neighborhoods.

"We have their respect. The volunteer work that we do is respected," Flores says.

More than that, he adds, many of the gang members who turn up to church looking to escape a life of crime eventually do end up wanting to "dedicate their lives to Christ...They have a genuine conversion."

From Pistols To Prayers
A member of the MS-13 gang attends a class in Chalatenango prison, 84 km north of San Salvador, on March 29, 2019. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty

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