Hundreds of inmates abandon gang life in El Salvador

Carlos Mario MARQUEZ

San Francisco Gotera (El Salvador) (AFP) - Inside a Salvadaron prison Francisco Lopez teaches fellow ex-gang members how to make paper figurines, as part of a program designed to reinsert them into society once they are released.

He is one of 460 inmates in El Salvador who have left one of the country's most vicious gangs, in a nation that along with neighboring Guatemala and Honduras makes up the "Northern Triangle" of Central America.

Their main claim to infamy is the gang violence that has propelled them to the top of the list of the most dangerous countries in the world, outside of actual war zones.

Criminal outfits -- dealing in murder, extortion and drugs -- reign with terror over swaths of territory, often whole districts of cities and towns.

Security forces clamp down on them, but any respite seems temporary. There are an estimated 70,000 gang members in El Salvador.

But some, Lopez among them, have now abandoned their ranks.

"I want a new life," he said. "The streets were all danger and death."

His organization was the Barrio 18 gang, and it was part of his life for 21 years -- a period he says today was "wasted."

"It was a crazy time that I badly lived through," the 38-year-old said on one of the patios in San Francisco Gotera prison in the country's northeast.

"But it's never too late to change."

- Preacher shows the way -

The catalyst for many to ditch their brutal street "family" was inmate Edwin Chicas, who dropped Barrio 18 to become an evangelical preacher.

His example prompted 460 other felons to follow suit -- not only breaking with the gang but also converting to Christianity.

The change brings with it an improvement to conditions behind bars.

Inmates are no longer kept separate in the prison, in overcrowded cells and with no family visits. They are given the right to leave their cells daily and participate in religious classes and in training workshops.

Most importantly, they are given opportunities to prepare for a different life, far from the brutish and often shortlived existence in the gangs.

Oscar Alirio Montano, 29, for instance, taught 60 prisoners the craft of turning mirrors into works of art.

But while they have left the gangs, their past affiliation is still evident in tattoos.

Alirio Montano, who is two-thirds of the way through his 15-year sentence, intends to go through a painful operation to remove the markings that cover him from head to toe.

- 'Getting rid of the past' -

Designed to hold 400 inmates, the San Francisco Gotera penitentiary has a population nearly three times that: 1,122 prisoners. The sentences are lengthy -- some have terms of over 100 years -- for crimes including murder, extortion and belonging to a criminal organization.

Overcrowding is so bad that prisoners have to sleep in hammocks strung up one on top the other.

Part of the way they prove they have left the gang involves the ex-members cleaning off Barrio 18 graffiti in the three wings where they are held, coating the walls in green and brown paint instead.

"We are getting rid of the past that inspired respect and fear of the gang," Chicas said.

One of the workshops offered to the gang-free prisoners is in English, taught by Edwin Garcia. The 36-year-old spent 23 years in the United States before being deported and later incarcerated for drug trafficking and weapon possession.

"I was deported from the US for the bad things I did. They grabbed me from home in 2010," he said, without elaborating further. He has served half of his six-year sentence.

In a literacy and numeracy workshop -- a popular activity with 60 enrolled -- the level is "beginner," explained one of the four teachers, Marvin Arias, 24.

Over in the guitar lesson, Alexander Lara, 22, and Neftali Escobar, 35, teach tunes with titles like "I'm changing for El Salvador" and "I want a better future."

For those looking to shake off their violent, clannish past, there are glimmers of a different future.

For other prisoners, though, sticking to the gangs, "the treatment will be drastic," warned the prison warden, Oscar Benavides.

"They will learn that society is fed up" with gangs, he said.