Robert Brenneman of Notre Dame University presented a paper on his research on gangs and former gang members in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Denver, Colorado, which Religioscope attended. Brenneman found a practice of “evangelical exemption” fairly common in these gangs. As long as departing members of a gang claimed a conversion and went to an evangelical (mainly Pentecostal) church, they were considered exempt from the punishment that a gang deserter would usually face, which could mean death.
Part of the reason for the lenient attitude toward evangelical converts is that gang members believe that they have special divine protection and if they harm them such actions might incur a curse against the gang. Another reason for the hands-off approach is that a former member who adopts an evangelical lifestyle is unlikely to move to another gang and thus share secrets and compete against their former gang. The fact that evangelicals are seen as adopting non-violence and tend to “turn the other cheek,” insures against vengeance by former gang members against the gang.
But the problems start when former gang members who have converted backslide and stop attending church and living the evangelical lifestyle. In this case, the exemption is lifted and such backsliders can be targeted, since they are now a source of competition for the former gang. Killings of such evangelical defectors are not infrequent. To make sure former members stay on the evangelical path, gangs will actually monitor and keep track of these converts’ religious lives, according to Brenneman. He added that converts or returnees to the Catholic church enjoy no such protection. In fact, gangs such as M18 incorporate Catholic rituals into their activities.
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.