Wolves to lambs: Finding God behind bars in El Salvador

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador, April 19 (Reuters) - Pastor Manuel Rivera's voice echoes through the crowded courtyard in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador, as hardened criminals weep and bow their heads in prayer.

Brutal 'mara' street gangs and chronic poverty have made El Salvador one of the most murderous countries on the planet, but the growth of evangelical Christianity behind bars is giving gangsters a way to break the spiral of violence.

Rivera, an ex-hitman from the powerful Barrio 18 gang, speaks to rows of men with spidery black tattoos on their arms, necks and faces, delivering a message of salvation: God had rescued them from violence. Returning to gang life would mean death.

"We used to say that the gang was our family, but God took the blindfold off our eyes," says Rivera, 36, dressed like the other inmates in a white t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals.

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Finding God behind bars at the San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador
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Finding God behind bars at the San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador

Luis Alfredo Alvarado Hernandez, member of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. "I have been a gang member since I was 13 years old, but God showed me in dreams that there was a heaven and hell, for the love of my children I decided to leave the gang because there is no future in it," said Hernandez.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Roberto Carlos Valencia Cruz, Member of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. "I was tired of living the disordered life of the gang, the Lord put me in the most appropriate place where he is pulling me out and teaching my brothers to read and write," said Cruz. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang take part in a carpentry workshop at the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Hammocks are seen inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Oscar Alirio Montano Amaya, a member of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. Amaya was part of a hip-hop group called 'Gangster Fury', today he is a deacon of the church and has been a Christian for two years. "God spoke to me in my dreams to convert me. He tried twice but I kept returning to gangster life. The last time, I was resting in a hammock and could hear Christians singing hymns. Suddenly I stared crying and fell to my knees. I took out my earrings as a sign that I had left the gang," said Amaya. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the La Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church work in a tailoring workshop at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Henry Josue Castellanos Alvarado, a member of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. "I was born in Milano, Italy, but my parents are from El Salvador. So I traveled there to meet my brothers and sisters. I got into bad friendships that ended with me being in jail. I've been in this prison for a month, I came from another jail where I was for four years," said Alvarado. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church play ball at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church learn how to cut hair at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Michael Douglas Hernandez, a member of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. "I am the librarian at the church and my job is to give reading time to my brothers. I became a Christian two years ago because god touched my heart," said Hernandez.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church perform a drama at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church take part in classes at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Pastor Edwin Mauricio Vasquez Chicas, head of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Rodolfo de Jesus Cornejo, member of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church poses for a picture in the prison orchard at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. "People on the outside don't trust us very much, they think we can't change. But yes, we can show them," said Cornejo. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Final Trompeta (The Final Trumpet) evangelical church make hammocks at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Pastor Manuel Rivera, Head of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church work inside a quarantine cell at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. 

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

Juan Carlos Guerra Romero, member of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church poses for a picture at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 10, 2018. "I became a member of the church after leaving the maximum security jail when I was declared terminally ill with chronic kidney failure, but I have survived two years so far," said Romero.

(REUTERS/Jose Cabezas)

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Some weep silently while he reads from a black bible. Others sing hymns, clapping and waving arms enthusiastically. They chorus: "Amen."

By embracing religion, these men can leave their gangs without retaliation, Rivera says. But if they do not show real devotion, their former gang-mates may kill them, fearing they will join other gangs and become enemies.

Convicted murderer Rivera's own transformation came behind bars, when, battered by years of running from police and enemy gangs, unable to see his son, he turned to prayer.

When God appeared in a dream, prophesying Rivera would have his own flock, he became a pastor, he says. He is now half-way through an eight-year sentence for criminal association.

Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Central America in the past decade, coloring local politics. Dozens of lawmakers embrace it, defending hardline positions against gay rights and abortion.

The fervor has spilled into jails, where it is welcomed by officials who sense its potential for reforming ex-gangsters.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren's government plans to use Gotera as a model of religious rehabilitation it hopes can be replicated.

Two years ago the prison, located about 100 miles east of capital San Salvador, was almost entirely home to active gang members. Now, the majority of its approximately 1,500 inmates want to find redemption, says prison director Oscar Benavides.

The conversions "show the country that it is possible to rehabilitate those in the Mara Salvatrucha or other gangs," says Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez, dismissing criticisms that the government should do more.

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A look at the MS-13 crime organization
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A look at the MS-13 crime organization
Shackled gang members stand in a line upon their arrival at a maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, 65 km east of San Salvador, on January 25, 2017. Twenty-seven gang members arrested in connection with the murders of policemen and soldiers were transferred on Wednesday to Zacatecoluca maximum security prison. The Salvadorean authorities reported that all of them were members of the violent MS-13 gang. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Gang members are escorted upon their arrival at a maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, 65 km east of San Salvador, on January 25, 2017. Twenty-seven gang members arrested in connection with the murders of policemen and soldiers were transferred on Wednesday to Zacatecoluca maximum security prison. The Salvadorean authorities reported that all of them were members of the violent MS-13 gang. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Gang members are escorted upon their arrival at a maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, 65 km east of San Salvador, on January 25, 2017. Twenty-seven gang members arrested in connection with the murders of policemen and soldiers were transferred on Wednesday to Zacatecoluca maximum security prison. The Salvadorean authorities reported that all of them were members of the violent MS-13 gang. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
A former gang member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang attends a tattoo removal session at the National Youth Institute (Injuve) in San Salvador, on July 1, 2016. The tattoo removal project, promoted by the government of Salvador, is attended daily by dozens of people - mostly young former gang members seeking to put an end to the stigma that associates them with the dreaded gangs. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Shackled gang members wait upon arrival at the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, 65 km east of San Salvador, on December 1, 2016. Twenty gang members arrested in connection with the murders of policemen and soldiers were transferred on December 1 to Zacatecoluca. The Salvadoran authorities reported that all of them were members of the violent MS-13 gang. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Alleged members of the 18 gang gesture as they walk during their presentation to the press in San Salvador on February 26, 2016. Members of the national civil police and the armed forces captured 240 dangerous gang members accused of homicide and extortion in the last three days in different areas of El Salvador, informed Friday the public prosecutor's office. El Salvador faces an escalation of violence attributed mostly to the war between the MS-13 and 18 ST gangs. AFP PHOTO / Marvin RECINOS / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
An alleged member of a gang gestures as he is transported after being presented to the press in San Salvador on February 26, 2016. Members of the national civil police and the armed forces captured 240 dangerous gang members accused of homicide and extortion in the last three days in different areas of El Salvador, informed Friday the public prosecutor's office. El Salvador faces an escalation of violence attributed mostly to the war between the MS-13 and 18 ST gangs. AFP PHOTO / Marvin RECINOS / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
A bomb squad specialist gets ready to make a controlled explosion after suspicious artifacts were found in Habitat, a colony 25 km south of Tegucigalpa, on May 4, 2016. Security forces participating in Operation Hurricane found several explosive devices in an area controlled by gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang captured by soldiers during an operation to recover neighborhoods controlled by gangs, in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 km from San Salvador, on June 7, 2016. The Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street gangs are the main cause of the escalation of violence plaguing El Salvador, where an estimated 60,000 people belong to gangs, 15,000 of them in prison. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Members of the MS-13 gang are detained near the crime scene where two men, Jose Wilfredo Navidad and Nestor Alexander Rivera, were killed as they rode a motorcycle on their way to work, in San Salvador, El Salvador January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum security jail in Zacatecoluca, December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
A police officer paints over a graffiti associated with the Mara Salvatrucha gang in the Montreal neighborhood in Mejicanos, El Salvador December 9, 2015. The El Salvadorean police is conducting an operation to erase graffiti associated with gangs as part of a strategy to regain control in gang-controlled areas in this neighborhood, according to the police. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang are guarded by policemen upon their arrival at the Quezaltepeque jail in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Two women and a child walk near a wall covered in graffiti and showing the letters "MS", which stand for street gang Mara Salvatrucha, in a neighborhood in San Salvador April 22, 2014. Church leaders in El Salvador on Tuesday said they want to revive a fragile truce between the country's powerful street gangs in order to curb a resurgence of violent crime. The 2012 truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18 helped cut the Central American country's murder rate in mid-2013 to around five per day, a 10-year low, from around 12 a day. REUTERS/Jessica Orellana (EL SALVADOR - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)
Carlos Tiberio Ramirez, one of the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang attends the Day of the Virgin of Mercy celebrations at the female prison in San Salvador September 24, 2012. About 2008 female inmates, 40% of them belonging to the MS-13 and 18 Street (Mara 18) gangs, interacted with their families as part of the celebrations for the Day of the Virgin of Mercy, the patron Saint of prisoners, local media reported. During the event, the spokesmen and leaders of the two largest gangs in the country, MS-13 and 18st, gave a news conference to mark the 200-days of an unprecedented truce signed on March 19, that authorities say has cut the homicide rate in half in just four months. REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez (EL SALVADOR - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW)
A convoy of military lorries transports inmates of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (Ms-13) gangs from the Tamara National Penitentiary to the El Pozo II medium security prison in Moroceli, El Paraiso department, 70 km east of Tegucigalpa, on May 16, 2017. The transfer of some 650 inmates was decided after the evasion of 22 members of the Barrio 18 gang from the penitentiary. / AFP PHOTO / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Parolees paint over graffiti associated with the Mara Salvatrucha's gang in San Salvador, during an operation to take back gang-controlled neighborhoods, on August 16, 2016. The Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street gangs are the main cause of the violence escalation plaguing El Salvador, where an estimated 60,000 people belong to gangs, 15,000 of them in prison. / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the 'Mara Salvatrucha' gang are kept in restraints in court in Guatemala City on July 28, 2015. At least three mara members were shot by rival gangsters while they were held under custody in a special jail located in the basement of the Supreme Court building. AFP PHOTO JOHAN ORDONEZ (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), is pictured on Monday, March 4, 2013, in the Criminal Center of Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, 160 km east of San Salvador, one year after the cessation of the violence between the rivalry of two large gangs in El Salvador, MS13 and 18 st. El Salvador, a small country of six million people, is brimming with an estimated 50,000 street gang members, plus another 10,000 who are behind bars. Since the first truce took effect about a year ago, the average daily death toll from gang-related violence has gone down from 14 to five. AFP PHOTO / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read Marvin RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), held on Monday, March 4, 2013, in the Criminal Center of Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, 160 km east of San Salvador, after one year of cessation of the violence between the rivalry of two large gangs in El Salvador, MS13 and 18 st. El Salvador, a small country of six million people, is brimming with an estimated 50,000 street gang members, plus another 10,000 who are behind bars. Since the first truce took effect about a year ago, the average daily death toll from gang-related violence has gone down from 14 to five. AFP PHOTO / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read Marvin RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mara Salvatrucha gang member attends a press conference where leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 declared the city of Quezaltepeque a peace zone or 'Sanctuary City' for gang related violence, on January 31, 2013 at the Quezaltepeque prison, 25 kms west of San Salvador. Gang leaders and members have been involved in a gang truce to reduce crime in El Salvador. AFP PHOTO/ Juan CARLOS (Photo credit should read Juan CARLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Carlos Tiberio Valladares, a.k.a. sniper, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, attends a press conference at the Female Jail in San Salvador, El Salvador on September 24, 2012. The leaders of the Mara 18 and Salvatrucha offered a press conference during the celebration of the 200 days of truce between them to reduce murder. AFP PHOTO/Jose CABEZAS (Photo credit should read Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages)
SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR: Picture of a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, presented before the press after his arrest in San Salvador, 17 March 2005. Violence from street gangs, known in the region as 'maras,' are considered the most pressing security issues in large cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - countries which will take part in the Anti-Maras Meeting on April 1st, in Tegucigalpa. Many of the Central American gangs have members living in the United States, and during his recent visit to Guatemala, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced a possible increase in US aid for the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and gang violence in the region. AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MAY 12: (U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT AND NEWSWEEK OUT) Photos of gang members and the names of their gangs are shown by U.S. officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a press conference announcing the results of their efforts after arresting 95 members of Hispanic gangs from an operation that began in January 2005 on May 12, 2005 in New York City. The gang members are illegal residents and will be deported to their countries of origin. Of 33 gang members arrested in the past 72 hours, 11 are members of the most violent gang, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13). Many of the 95 members arrested since January 2005 are members of Mexican mafia groups living in New York, Yonkers and Long Island. ICE officers are part of the federal government's Department of Homeland Security. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
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The Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious cross-border crime group also known as MS-13, was founded by Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

President Donald Trump has blamed MS-13 and illegal immigration from Central America as a major source of violence in the United States.

Outside the relative tranquility of the prison, danger permeates the streets of El Salvador.

Crime has fallen from a record high in 2015, but at 60 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, the murder rate is still one of the highest worldwide.

Inside Gotera, where some inmates are serving 100-year sentences for accumulated crimes, colorful drawings of angels and prophets decorate the walls alongside biblical quotations.

Inmates wearing shirts emblazoned with "Soldier of Christ" and "Jesus Saved My Life" study prayer books, weave hammocks and tend to a garden.

Rodolfo Cornejo, 34, with intricate black tattoos circling his neck, started praying and growing cucumbers when he entered the prison on a 12-year sentence for carrying firearms, wanting to leave the rough life that had isolated him from his kids.

"People on the outside don't trust us very much: they think we can't change. But yes, we can show them."

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O'Brien)

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