From life as thugs to baking, El Salvador's ex-gang members seek peace

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Gang life in the poor Central American country of El Salvador is hard, but for a dozen former members of the feared 18th Street Gang, building a new life outside is no less difficult.

Wilfredo Gomez, 40, joined a gang as an adolescent in Los Angeles, the U.S. city to which his parents emigrated. He said he was enticed by the guns, the girls and the camaraderie of gang life.

He wound up in jail before being deported back to his native country. With few links to El Salvador, he quickly returned to gang life. A 10-year jail sentence for stealing an Uzi submachine gun gave him time to reckon with his choices.

Returning to civil society is arduous in the midst of the government's militarized battle against the "maras," which has led to claims of rights abuses and, according to police, an average daily tally of 16 dead.

Former gang members often struggle to find lodging and work, and may be rejected by their families.

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Former gang members turn to baking
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Former gang members turn to baking
Members of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, work in their bakery at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood of San Salvador, El Salvador, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Wilfredo Gomez, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, does the accounts for the bakery project at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood of San Salvador, El Salvador, July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) rests at the bakery at the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, prepares dough at their bakery in the Dina neighbourhood of San Salvador, El Salvador, June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Members of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry prepare dough as they learn how to make bread at the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos (L) and Joseph Ramirez of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, sell bread at the Dina in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos and Joseph Ramirez, members of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, sell bread in the Dina neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Members of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, have lunch before a graduation at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, washes vegetables which will be used on pizzas, at their bakery in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, works on the construction of the store front of their bakery at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, talks with his son at his home in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Julio Marroquin, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, attends the wake of a fellow member in Colon, El Salvador, June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Raul Valladares of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, tries to fix a toy gun at his home in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, hangs clothes outside his home in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, watches TV with his son at his home in the Dina neighbourhood of San Salvador, El Salvador, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, has laser treatment during a tattoo removal session in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, gets a diploma for Human Rights and Peace Culture course during a graduation at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Julio Marroquin, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, participates in a religious service at the Eben-Ezer christian church at the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares and Carlos Montano, members of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, sell bread in the Monserrat neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, gets ready for a graduation ceremony at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, dances to christian songs during a storm at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Members of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, attend the wake of a fellow member, in Colon, El Salvador, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Raul Valladares of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, shows the secuels of the tattoo removal treatment at the Eben Ezer church in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Julio Marroquin, (L), member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, participates in a religious service at the Eben-Ezer christian church in the Dina neighbourhood of San Salvador, El Salvador, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Roberto Renderos, member of the "Huellas de Esperanza" (Traces of Hope) ministry, prepares dough at their bakery in the Dina neighbourhood in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas SEARCH "CABEZAS BAKERY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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For Gomez and 12 other ex-gangsters, the Eben-Ezer evangelical church in the gang-ridden neighborhood of Dina in San Salvador, the capital, has been a lifeline, offering food, accommodations, and a spiritual second chance.

"I've only had losses being part of the gang," Gomez said. "I haven't won anything. I lost my youth, which was spent in jail. I lost my family due to my bad decisions. I lost my home, my woman, my son, and I lost the best years of my life due to a pointless ideology."

Gomez now runs a bakery that employs 10 other former gang members.

"Now, my fun, my enjoyment, is to see them smile, to have dreams," Gomez said. "They say they're going to open a bigger bakery, and that one day we'll have our own store and compete against Pizza Hut."

Rejected by a society weary of violence, they nonetheless struggle to eradicate the stain of gang life.

In October, police went to the bakery and stripped the employees to expose their gang tattoos. They were arrested on suspicion of illicit association, a crime that carries a 5-year sentence. A week later, they were released without charges.

Once known as "The Shadow," Raul Valladares, 34, is undergoing a painful process to remove tattoos from his face and arms. He has received death threats from his former gang associates because removing gang insignia is punishable by death.

"It's definitely cost me a lot to leave the gang," he said. "But I'm fighting to keep going."

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