Oscar Benavides, director of La Gotera jail, speaks to prisoners in San Francisco de Gotera, El Salvador, on April 19, 2018. In two years, the jail has tipped to evangelical Protestantism after 1,500 prisoners, sentenced for their activities in the 18th Street gang, converted. (Nadege Mazars) LEFT: Roberto prays in San Salvador on July 2, 2017. Tattoos cover his face. They name or allude to his former gang, 18-R (a split of the initial 18th Street gang). RIGHT: A tattoo was removed recently from the arms of Jose Rolando, in San Salvador on April 4, 2017. (Nadege Mazars)
In the prisons of El Salvador, former gang members have found an unlikely friend in Jesus.
El Salvador is home to around 60,000 gang members, according to its government’s estimates, and thousands of people have been killed in gang violence there in the past few years.
Some of those in prison for gang-related crimes are among the Central American country’s most hardened criminals. But although they may have once sold drugs or killed rival gang members, behind bars many have found comfort in evangelical Christianity.
At La Gotera prison in San Francisco de Gotera, it’s hot, with little water or food. But the hundreds of men who sit quietly listening to a pastor’s sermon seem to have found solace in the Christian message he shares.
Photographer Nadège Mazars has taken a number of trips to El Salvador in recent years to document how these men have transformed into Christian evangelists.
Many of them believe seeking God is their last chance at reclaiming their lives, Mazars said. And religion “gives them the space” to leave their old selves behind.
But even once they consider themselves changed, their gang tattoos, which sometimes cover their faces or arms, give away their darker past. Some have sought to have them removed through special programs that reintegrate former gang members into society. Others must find a way to move on despite their appearance.
“For me, the contrast between the past lives they had and this current devotion is something incredible that I am still trying to better understand,” Mazars said.
Uziel, a former member of the 18th Street gang, and Martin, a pastor, preach in an area with the gang’s presence, in Aguilares on Oct. 8, 2017. Uziel came with Angel and two other brothers, also former gang members, to support a “campaign” to convert gang members. During the day, he said that 10 gang members came to them. (Nadege Mazars) Former gang members sleep in the same room in the Eben Ezer church where they make bread in San Salvador on April 16, 2017. The church has limited resources. Saul Antonio is sleeping with his Bible. (Nadege Mazars) In a police station, two detainees wash in a unique bathroom that 15 policemen share with 11 detainees in Soyapango on July 8, 2017. (Nadege Mazars) Angel, a recently released former gang member, built a little battery chick farm at the back of his parents' house, where he lives, in Apopa on Oct. 8, 2017. He hopes to earn money selling the chickens. Lifting their hands, his evangelical brothers are praying for him to have a productive business and avoid returning to crime. (Nadege Mazars) A brother of the Eber Ezer church helps Marvin adjust his tie before receiving a diploma for “peace construcción” in San Salvador on June 30, 2017. (Nadege Mazars) A police patrol assisted by military members checks the documents of a “retired” gang member, now an evangelist, in Soyapongo on July 8, 2017. A man keeps a concerned eye on the situation. The local population seems to be suspicious of the police patrol. (Nadege Mazars) At the police station in Soyapango, an 18 Street gang member is transferred to be detained on July 7, 2017. According to the police, he was arrested with 16 doses of marijuana. (Nadege Mazars) At left, on the floor, Edwin is praying at the evangelical temple that received him in 2010 when he decided to leave the gang after an “encounter with God under the shadow of terror" in San Salvador on Oct. 16, 2017. Edwin is a migrant’s son. He came to the United States as a child and entered the 18 Street gang there. After several years in jail, he was deported and participated with other deportees in the expansion of the gang in El Salvador. (Nadege Mazars)
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