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In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony

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). And 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.

While a new Assembly was elected in 2018, the political class, all political parties combined, has so far only promoted measures increasingly repressive, without removing the gangs.

As a result, the prisons have filled up, exploding their capacity of reception, while the public programs of rehabilitation are almost non-existent. Only some evangelical churches welcome the recently released seeking to break with their past lives.

Conversions to Evangelical Protestantism are usually done in prison. One of them, located in San Francisco de Gotera, in the north-east of the country, reveals the extent of the phenomenon: In two short years, the jail has tipped. The 1,500 prisoners sentenced for their activities in the 18th Street gang are now all fervent Christian evangelizers. Only some seventy diehards, isolated from the others, still refuse to convert. According to the prison director, half of the prisoners are serving a sentence of more than 30 years, and a quarter a sentence of more than 50 years.

At the same time, the “extraordinary measures” were put in place by the government. Highly contested by international institutions, these measures completely isolated the prisons where gang members were imprisoned. The goal was to break the chain of command between the incarcerated leaders and their base in the neighborhoods.

In parallel to the severe living and isolate conditions of the inmates, Oscar Benavides, the jail director, made the bet to give more power to some incarcerated pastors and former gang members. From a first yard, the conversion extended progressively to the five others. In April 2018, extraordinary measures have begun to be removed in La Gotera. Because the prison, now composed by evangelized inmates, no longer represents a danger.

As in any part of Latin America, the Evangelical Protestantism extended during the last decades in El Salvador achieving today an estimated 40% of the population, and taking power in the political sphere.

Series conducted on April 19, 2018.