LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, much of it gang-related. The group's MS-13 and Barrio 18 have some 70,000 members in Central America. El Salvador's government has struggled for solutions, cracking down on gangs and also negotiating with them. But nothing has seemed to work. Now churches may offer a way to turn gang members away from crime. Reporter Sarah Esther Maslin writes in The Economist's 1843 Magazine that evangelical churches are trying to help gang members who want to leave what's called la vida loca.
SARAH ESTHER MASLIN: This is something that started in a prison up in the northeast of the country when a couple hundred gang members sort of declared they wanted to move to a different part of the prison and conduct Christian services and cut ties from the - you know, the rest of the gang members in this prison. It has now sort of spread to the outside. And, you know - whereas before, you've always seen individual, ram-shackled churches throughout the country that will take in, you know, a gang member, let them come to the services. But what's new is the quantity.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many?
MASLIN: Well, you know, it started with just a few guys in this prison. But within a few weeks, it was hundreds who were saying they wanted out. And it has something to do with these repressive measures in the prison. You know, prisoners are on lockdown 24 hours a day. They have been now for two years. At the same time, there's something really genuine in what these guys are saying, which is they didn't want to be part of this life in the first place. And now, for the first time, they feel like they have an opportunity to get out.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think these Pentecostal churches are offering that the Catholic Church hasn't been able to offer? Because they've also been working in this space for a long time.
MASLIN: The thing that the Pentecostal churches have in addition to access because there are so many of them - they pop up sort of in holes in the walls in these little slums. The other thing they have going for them is the by-the-bootstraps emphasis on individual transformation. So these gang members feel like they've really been marginalized from mainstream society. And, you know, for whatever reason, the Catholic Church has symbolized that for them as well.
On the other hand, the Pentecostal churches tell you you don't need to know the Bible in and out. All you have to do is show up and sincerely believe and believe that you can change. And the other thing is these guys really feel that they've had strong transformations that hit them all of a sudden in the prisons for the most part. That belief of a come-to-Jesus moment has, I think, impacted a lot of them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the government's response to this? Are they supporting the churches?
MASLIN: So far, that hasn't happened. And for the most part, the government has ignored what's happening and even gone after the guys who have left their gang ties. In one case, it's a tiny church in the middle of San Salvador where about half a dozen ex-gang members recently out of prison live together and make a pittance of a living selling bread in the community. And more than once, the police have barged in and arrested several of them. And, you know, it's also important to mention that there are no government programs to rehabilitate gang members. The security minister himself told me that, by law, there's no difference between a guy who's in the gang and a guy who's left the gang.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sarah Esther Maslin is a reporter for The Economist. Thank you so much.
MASLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.