In El Salvador, gang affiliation is lifelong. But there is an exception: when “God reclaims a soul”, by death, or by devotion to religious activities. Conversion to Evangelical Protestantism became the only way tolerated by the gang leaders to get out alive.
Inside the gang, the tattoos were the claim of a rebellion against the society and an allegiance to the gang, with the writing of the name of the gang repeated several time in the flesh. They also were the expression of a perpetual belonging and used as a means of building social identity. In particular those with tattoo on the face had an almost sacred status.
But outside the gang, the tattoos are the footprint of their past occupations engraved as a physical evidence, a living stigma of their possible criminal activities. They jeopardize their attempt of a change of life.
For more than 20 years, the country of El Salvador face an endemic violence related to gang activity. In 2015, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the Western hemisphere (Insight Crime). According to the International Crisis Group, there are 60,000 active members in a country of just 6,4 million people, with an estimated 500,000 connected to the gangs.
For those trying to leave the gang, there are almost no public programs of rehabilitation. Only some evangelical churches, welcome the recently released seeking to break with their past lives.