• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates •
Both the U.S. and the El Salvador governments call the current gang epidemic in El Salvador a crisis of epic proportions. But opportunities for gang members to escape the cycle of violence — with their lives — remain incredibly dangerous, and rare. This is one unfunded organization that’s trying, anyway.
The young men carefully guided the large, metal trays out of the industrial-sized oven and onto standing racks to cool.
The artisanship was evident: perfect, buttery coils of pan con ajo; creamy-topped novias; rows of soft picudas, their delicate peaks adorned with golden beads of sugar. In the other room, a few others were masterfully shaping the dough before it went into the kiln — twisting spirals to form decadent cachitos; filling jalea-replete gusanitos with the second nature sort of motion that comes only with time, repetition and dedication.
As the air filled with warmth and rich wafts of butter and yeast, I felt like I might be in any typical Salvadoran bakery, except for notable context: all of these delicacies were being made by ex-gang members.
In the back of a makeshift church in one of the most brutally violent territories in the country, these tattooed hands that not so long ago embarked on very different tasks were now rolling out thin ropes of dough, gracefully arranging them in circular designs atop sweetbreads.
I was inside Eben-Ezer church for the third of five visits with this unique community in La Dina, a small colonia in San Salvador with the notorious distinction of being the birthplace of the transplanted MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs in El Salvador (both formed and grew initially in Los Angeles). A few weeks earlier, I had gone with a fellow journalist who in 2018 filmed a short documentary for The Guardian on havens such as this one, which act as the only way out of gang life apart from prison or death.
That day, I met Wilfredo, an original Salvadoran gangster who grew up on 18th Street in LA, where Barrio 18 began. He was deported in 2009, getting caught up in the gangs once again before ultimately converting to Christianity in prison. Since he got out three years ago, he’s become one of the leaders of this church — via the huellas de esperanza, or “footsteps of hope” program — helping to house and feed the 20 ex-gang members who live there, and kickstart the small bakery in order to provide a meager source of income for individuals who have become grossly unemployable in the eyes of the country.
When I first returned, two weeks ago, I met Will at our agreed-upon location: the parking lot of a Mister Donuts chain just outside La Dina borders. That way, he could escort me safely inside the community confines; and anyway, the Uber I’d arrived in wouldn’t think of going across the neighborhood boundary himself.
Not many outsiders do. In fact, the two Salvadoran friends that make up the mini crew I had been hiring on film assignments for my docu-series project had both declined to come on these assignments out of fear. It was understandable; the people we’d lined up for interviews in a different gang territory had cancelled as well, telling us they no longer felt safe, even after we’d agreed to blur their faces and distort their voices in the film.
According to the media and popular opinion, risk exists for anyone who enters these areas. In 2009, in another San Salvador gang territory, Christian Poveda, a French journalist who had spent years working with the underbelly of this country’s gangs was ultimately murdered by his subjects. It was a moment that sent shock waves through the international community and is referenced still, by Salvadorans inside and outside of these trigger zones.
Of course, for the ex-gang members who live in this community, a much greater risk stands at the door. Any slip-up in the Christian lifestyle can result in death, as was demonstrated a little over a year ago, when a couple of program participators momentarily diverged from the program rules and were promptly killed.
• • •
At the donut shop, Will drove up outside, visible through the window, and waved. He parked and came in.
“How are you today?” He asked, effusing the warm smile I’d gotten to know when meeting him for the first time.
As we piled my equipment into his van, his tone grew momentarily curt for a handful of necessary instructions. “Never film outside except right in front of the church, and only if I’m with you,” he said. “Keep your personal bag on your body at all times. Don’t take money out in front of anyone.”
• • •
I recognized the short drive into La Dina from the first time I’d been there.
In many ways, it looked similar to a lot of San Salvador neighborhoods. Cars lined worn, palm-laden streets boasting houses that looked typical, if a little thinner, with a greater use of aluminum siding. Fresh laundry hung on lines. Barbed wire circumscribed rooftops. Succulents, nestled into plastic pots and soil bags, basked in the sun outside people’s homes.
But besides the warnings from Will, I was quickly reminded of the differences in where I was.
Unlike most church members in this deeply religious country, many at Eben-Ezer bore the marks of a difficult life; missing eyes and lingering scars; tattoos covering every space between their foreheads and their toes. During an interview, one man remarked that I’d probably never killed someone before; I confirmed that was true.
Many of the most decorated program members regularly endure free tattoo-removal sessions via the local organization La Factoría Ciudadana to lessen the boldness of the ink, but the process is long and slow. Will returned from such an appointment one afternoon with his sleeves uncharacteristically rolled up to his elbows. The scrolls on his forearms, the ’18’s scrawled on his neck and his temple were red and dramatically swollen.
“Man, it hurts,” said Will, who has gone through dozens of removal sessions just to get this far.
One day, while filming a street just in front of the church, Will abruptly angled himself in between me and the young men skittering across the block.
“Would you like to stop filming?” he asked in a calm, low voice — explaining later just who the individuals who had glanced in front of my camera were.
A couple of days later, an active gang member came inside the church and approached me to ask some questions — clearly, after seeing me spend notable time in the area, he had wanted to check in.
The tense moment underscored the irony of these men’s plight. Given their chronicled pasts and ink-stained presents, many of them can’t even leave the Barrio 18-controlled La Dina neighborhood out of fear that an MS-13 member will see them and kill them — or their neighbors, bus drivers and fellow store patrons will call the police, and they might.
Staying, however, means residing under the control of the system they’re trying so hard to leave behind.
• • •
Every day after baking the sweet and savory breads, the men who operate the bakery go around La Dina and the surrounding communities to sell their product in typical Salvadoran form, traversing the streets with crates atop their heads, bellowing aloud the names of the goods they had to sell. I was once permitted to follow them with my camera for just the four blocks surrounding the church, out of safety concerns.
“People around here get nervous with cameras,” Will said. “And gringos.”
Under the weight of the mid-day sun, Carlo and Saul donned jeans, dark blue long-sleeved T-shirts with “Iglesia Misionera EBEN-EZER” printed on the back, and caps pulled low over their foreheads.
“Pan dulce, pan con ajo, pan con jamon, crossandwiiiich,” they called, with cadence, as one customer emerged from his front door to purchase a budget-friendly lunch.
Eben-Ezer sells sweet breads for $0.25, and savory rolls stuffed with ham and cheese for $0.50; sandwiches go for a $1 each.
The entire operation might be enough to sustain a small family; for 20 grown men, the business’ meager returns are wildly insufficient, resulting in many skipped meals around the church.
For the moment, this is their only option. As far as the state is concerned, these men are still on the wrong side of the war against gangs.
In 2012, the Salvadoran government began its only experiment with negotiating an end to gang violence — when former president Mauricio Funes initiated a truce that initially dramatically dropped homicide rates. But as the truce broke down, the mano dura, or “iron fist” approach reemerged. In 2015, beginning under former president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the national campaign against gangs began to ramp up more dramatically than ever — with increased prison security and more troops on the street designed to fight the wave of violence that had brought murder rates to record levels.
When current president Nayib Bukele took office last June, he did so following an ultra-popular campaign of fighting corruption and cracking down on the gangs. Since, he has made international headlines for early moves to further secure prisons — which have long operated as point centers for incarcerated gang members — by cutting off cell service and removing technology equipment such as phones and computers.
Still, Will points out, there are no state-sponsored Salvadoran organizations that work to protect ex-gang members or help to rehab them into productive society — an obstacle furthered by the 2015 decision by El Salvador’s Supreme Court to label MS-13 and the two Barrio 18 factions as “terrorist organizations” after the Obama administration dubbed MS-13 an “international criminal group” a couple years earlier. Since then, the idea of working with the gangs or its former members in any way has become so incredibly unpopular that almost no one advocates for it.
For those who try to flee the gang structure, that leaves remarkably few options to reintegrate, or even survive. Ex-gang members, especially the ones that bear the curse of gang tattoos, are virtually unemployable. One program member who is currently on house arrest — let’s call him Manuel — told me of going to court to get authorization to move into the church, away from his former neighborhood where threats to his life had been made. And even here, no one is truly safe.
“Sometimes I get scared for my wife and his daughter,” Will told me one morning as we drove toward La Dina. “I think if they got a good chance, they would kill me.”
The ensuing result is a world in which simply being an ex-gang member is nearly impossible. Despite that both the U.S. government and the Salvadoran government call the current gang situation a crisis, most of those who want to leave the gangs, can’t. There are simply too few and too painfully ineffective options.
I wondered aloud what the strategy could be.
“If you’re not negotiating an end to this, and you’re not allowing gang members to rehabilitate, what could the solution be? Just kill them all?”
Will sighed heavily, turning away from the Mister Donuts.
“That was the actual policy of the last three years,” he said.
Around that time, mysterious armed forces had begun appearing in all of the gang territories and ruthlessly murdering gang members in targeted operations. Since then, those units have been exposed in damning investigations via local newspaper El Faro, finding that high-ranking members of the Salvadoran military commanded the illegal “death squad” groups that had summarily executed at least dozens of gang members, although some in these areas claim the number is much higher.
“They didn’t wear a number like most cops,” Will said. “They’d just be dressed in all black with ski masks and machine guns; they’d grab you and just kill you in front of your family.”
Previously, other participants of huellas de esperanza mentioned that they had been targeted, too, as ex-gang members.
“Even if we change, they don’t believe it,” Manuel told me, referencing security forces and the general public. “They don’t want people like us around.”
Will said that these death squads have since ceased, although some reports disagree.
Still, outside of the tiny programs that people like Will have helped establish, a viable option for a new life has not emerged. Many of the program members barely leave the church. They subsist off of bread money and faith, packing four-deep into the on-site dormitories the size of large closets.
Despite all of that damning context, I found that a single, incredibly unlikely sentiment kept invading the gloom:
Though the people I encountered looked the part of hardened criminals, they emitted kindness, respect and warmth. They played songs on the guitar. They encouraged me to try their breads. They bought me piña from a vendor who walked past. “For you, it’s free,” said Luis, a 19-year-old with an eye patch via being shot in the face three years earlier.
He, like everyone here, has more reason than most to be filled with anger, resentment and pessimism. Everyone I spoke with had survived, first, a violent and torturous childhood. Then, as society’s most vulnerable, they had been caught up in a system, almost exclusively as youth — I didn’t hear of anyone who “joined” the gangs any later than age 14. For those juvenile decisions, they had received remarkable punishment. In prison or out, they had earned a life sentence.
And yet they exuded generosity. Forgiveness. Hope.
Those who live within the huellas de esperanza program are the exception. The future for these men is ambiguous at best; flat out despondent at worse. Without real prospects for jobs, safety and homes of their own, they lack almost every ingredient for hope. They are baking, anyway — embracing the aspiration, however unrealistic, of a second chance. They’ve dared to hope for progress, for rehabilitation, for change.
And even as they navigate the realities of being who they are, they are defying the structural and cultural standards that say they’re not allowed to exist.
On my last visit to the church, I lingered in the basement bakery as Raul dropped dollops of a creamy orange mixture onto flattened discs of dough.
“Mantequilla con quesillo,” he said, skillfully rolling each pan con jamon.
Soon, he and his colleagues were finishing the army of sheet pans — brushing the savory pastries with butter and dusting them with sesame seeds — as the first rounds emerged from the oven.
The air, once again, filled with warmth and richness. For a moment, it was almost possible — at least for me — to forget.
But once outside the church doors, reality always came crashing back in.
After each time I said goodbye to Will in that Mister Donuts parking lot, we would reiterate plans for the next get-together, our next round of interviews, our upcoming film session.
“See you tomorrow,” I’d chirp.
He would responded in kind, with an asterisk.
“See you tomorrow,” he’d say.
• • •