Conversion and Exit from Central American Gangs

Robert Brenneman of St. Michael’s College recently published an article on Wresting the Devil: Conversion and Exit from Central American Gangs in the Latin American Research Review.

Abstract: A crisis of urban violence has emerged in northern Central America during the past two decades. Although youth gangs are responsible for only a portion of this violence, punitive approaches to dealing with gang violence have sharpened public hostility toward gang members and created a context conducive to the practice of “social cleansing” aimed at reducing gang violence by eliminating gang-affiliated youth through extrajudicial executions.

Against this backdrop of public anger and resentment aimed at gang youth, a sizeable number of Evangelical-Pentecostal pastors and lay workers have developed ministries aimed at rescuing gang members and restoring them to society, often making considerable sacrifices and taking personal risks in the process.

After describing the difficulties and risks associated with leaving the gang, this article takes a sociological approach to gang member conversions to discover the resources that Evangelical- Pentecostal congregations and gang ministries offer to former gang members facing the crisis of spoiled identity. I draw on semistructured interviews conducted in 2007 and 2008 with former gang members and gang ministry coordinators in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and a handful of follow-up interviews conducted in 2013.

Religious exits from gangs do not appear to have ever been that successful and, from what I read, have become less so since these interviews were conducted.

See also Brenneman’s Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America