God among the gangs of Central America

In many countries around the world, religion is often indicted as the primary force driving hatred and violence. In at least one region, though, Christian churches not only work heroically to bring peace and reconciliation, but are literally the only signs of hope. And this powerful story has been unfolding on Americans’ own doorstep.

Central America includes some of the world’s most violent societies. Among the most troubled are the nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which together com­prise the Northern Tri­angle. All these countries were shaped by the savage civil wars that swept the region in the 1980s, killing hundreds of thousands. Many residents fled to Mexico or the United States, and when they or their children re­turned, some at least brought with them the gang cultures they had witnessed in Southern California and elsewhere.

Central American gangs became very large and intimidating organizations, with complex rituals and bloodthirsty initiations. The most notorious network, the heavily  Salvadoran MS-13, claims 70,000 members and operates in multiple countries. Because of the arsenals left behind at the end of the civil wars, the gangs are ex­tremely well armed, and they freely use paramilitary force to advance their interests and slaughter rivals. These groups flourish in areas that offer very few legal opportunities to gain a livelihood.