2016 / Editorial / Conflict

Life after gangs

  • Photographer
    Patrick Tombola

Life after the gang Juan never left the gang he grew up in and killed for, EL Salvador’s Barrio 18. One can never truly do that. He ‘calmed himself’ as it’s called and became a non-active member by turning to evangelical Christianity. Scaling down one’s involvement in the gang is a dangerously tricky business that can get a member killed for the smallest misstep. The faintest change of heart back to gang life, any attempt to remove the tattoos or a night of heavy drinking can condemn one to rapid execution by his former brothers in arms. The issue of rehabilitation and reintegration of former gang members is crucial if El Salvador is ever to achieve stability. A country of merely 6 million people, it witnesses a de facto civil conflict between the police force and the two main rival gangs with over 70,000 active members in total resulting the highest murder rate in the world outside declared war zones. The evangelical call has so far proved like the way members can shed a life of extreme violence and crime. Non-active members do not engage in any decision-making and do not conduct business on the gang’s behalf but if ever called upon they must respect the blood pact many made in their early teens. Juan’s heavily tattooed upper body now clashes with his newly found spiritual commitment. He says he received the word of God in his heart while in jail on a 5-year stint for extortion. He wears long sleeve shirts and gloves to mask his past, a look that alone attracts suspicion in El Salvador’s tropical climate. Working at one of many textile factories on minimum wage is not Juan’s ultimate goal but then again for most of his youth he thought he’d be either dead or locked up in prison for life by his early 30s. While trying to support his wife and two kids without formal education and with his past staring right back at him every morning, Juan dreams of a life where he won’t have to look over his shoulders forever and the scars of his past can finally heal.