Features

Marked targets

"Marked targets" Continued...

Issue: "Big bucks ministries," July 28, 2007

It slowly climbed the gangland food chain. The U.S. government began a massive deportation program in the 1980s that expelled about 40,000 a year back to Central America. Here, their Maori-tribesmen-like tattoos and imperfect Spanish ostracized them. The only place they belonged, it seemed, was in Mara Salvatrucha. The gangs re-formed, so the region's leaders adopted counterinsurgency tactics taken from the same guerrilla warfare that originally drove the gang members to L.A.

The El Salvador government's last move was to ratchet Mano Dura up in mid-2004 into a version called Super Mano Dura. Despite vocal censuring from the United Nations, which maintained that the program overleaped rules of due process, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved reforms that authorized, among other things, the arrest of youths for tattoos. The Salvadoran government was able to report somewhat victoriously that Super Mano Dura reduced 2004's homicide rate by 14 percent. The improvement, however, wasn't permanent: El Salvador defaulted back to 552 murders in the first two months of 2005.

Critics say the effect has been closer to stomping on an anthill than wiping out the colony: Rather than curbing the violence, hard-handed policies inflamed gangs. Homicides have gone up since the first Mano Dura was enacted in 2003. In 2005 there were 3,812 murders, the most since 1998 and an average of more than 10 a day.

Mario Vega is senior pastor of San Salvador's Misión Cristiana Elim Internacional Church, which has been the backbone of El Salvador's growing evangelical and Pentecostal movement, filling in where the Catholic Church has dwindled. Elim's active membership of almost 150,000 makes it one of the world's largest churches. Under the aegis of Vega, a clean-cut man with an infectious smile, the church has held rallies of 200,000 whose attendees included evangelical-friendly President Elías Antonio Saca.

Vega believes politicians have little interest in backing alternatives to gangs, so Elim tries to fill the void. The megachurch has several programs targeting youths, and many of its 6,500 cell groups volunteer with at-risk children once a week. "Currently, our cell system cares for about 30,000 boys and girls," he says. "Our goal is to be able to reach 100,000 in the next few years."

Fed up with government inaction, other nonprofits-many faith-based, almost all small and underfunded-have joined the battle on the cultural front. Larger organizations such as the NGO FundaSalva, which offers job training to former maras, and Homies Unidos, an organization in San Salvador and L.A. that provides alternatives to gang life, also run tattoo-removal clinics.

These programs, Vega says, satisfy at-risk youths' desire to feel like they belong. In place of torso-sized tattoos and gangbangs, they instruct children in Christian values, warning of the destructive power of drugs and violence. Vega speaks of a crucial juncture in El Salvador's future and hopes that a preoccupied government and under-funded, sometimes embittered, nonprofits will work together.

Until that day, his prognosis is bleak. "Everyone in El Salvador knows that the Super Mano Dura program is a downright disaster," Vega says. "Only government officials and the president think that things are improving."

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