Propelled by conversions to evangelical Christianity, some gang members are renouncing their former lives and quitting the gangs. It is a phenomenon which is most pronounced in the San Francisco Gotera prison in northeast El Salvador.
From Revista Factum, as translated into English for InsightCrime:
It's happening in the streets, in the communities still controlled by gangs, and in the segregated prisons. It's a phenomenon which, despite being hard to believe at first, has been recognized by prison authorities: Hundreds of gang members are abandoning and outright rejecting their gangs, opting instead for the teachings of evangelical churches. In Gotera prison, close to 500 members of the Barrio 18 have retired from gang life and are now saying that they have no relation with the group....
Montano, who left Gotera a little more than three months ago, remembers it like this: "That was the explosion. That was the bomb that went off in the prison. Because it was a situation that had not been seen before. It brought almost 500 young people to the decision to say 'I will not return to the gang, I am not a gang member, now I am not a subject of the code nor of the gang … If brothers with the letters MS arrive, I will live with them … If they come to remove tattoos I will remove mine.' You know it is not easy. If you talk to active [gang members] they will not understand this."The government recognizes that a real change has taken place. According to a report in El Faro, the government is relaxing its "extraordinary measures" for the 460 prisoners who it says have renounced their membership in Barrio 18 in the San Francisco Gotera prison. Instead, they get access to a series of rehabilitation workshops in the governments "Yo Cambio / I Change" program.
A report from AFP describes the change:
The change brings with it an improvement to conditions behind bars. Inmates are no longer kept separate in the prison, in overcrowded cells and with no family visits. They are given the right to leave their cells daily and participate in religious classes and in training workshops. Most importantly, they are given opportunities to prepare for a different life, far from the brutish and often shortlived existence in the gangs.This photo essay from Reuters shows scenes of the inmates participating in those programs.
The director of El Salvador's prisons, Rodil Hernandez, rejected suggestions that the government was in some way negotiating with the prisoners who were receiving improved conditions. With respect to the 460 gang members who had quit Barrio 18, he downplayed the role of religion and instead touted the combined effectiveness of the "extraordinary measures" combined with the Yo Cambio program.
Whatever the reason is, El Salvador needs to find a way to replicate it across all its prisons holding thousands more gang members.