Sitting inside the prison cells of El Salvador resides two of the most ruthless and violent gangs — MS-13 and Barrio 18. Known for their brutal tactics which include raping and killing women, these gang members are often shunned by society or thrown into prison to rot and die.
One former gang member José Rolando Arévalo joined the Barrio 18 gang at the tender age of 14. But after 10 long years of living the gang lifestyle, at age 24 José wanted out.
But in El Salvador once you pledge your life to the gang, there is no way out — unless you flee the country or end up in a body bag. However, it turns out even the most ruthless gang leaders fear God. And according to these gang leaders, choosing to follow Jesus is the only “one shot” chance for gang members to escape the gang lifestyle.
José had someone tell him about Jesus, and his life was forever changed. And now, he has decided to give his life to Christ, and follow Jesus. José has since been released from prison and you can find him praising God behind the church walls.
“‘He started talking to me about my life. About everything that had happened in the gang and with my family.’ Arévalo says.
The pastor also started talking about God and how the evangelical church would embrace him. Arévalo says his heart was touched. For the first time, someone had talked to him about his life and the decisions he had made in a ay that got through to him. He has attended church three times since his release from prison and his left the gang.”
The power of Jesus is truly supernatural.
These gangsters are conditioned to live and die for their gang. But once they are thrown into prison and realize how fleeting life really is, an amazing trend is happening behind bars. These gang members are hearing the Gospel, the real Gospel for the first time, and it is transforming their lives. And now, once they’ve heard the truth of the Gospel, they’ve decided following Jesus and serving Him is way better than living a life of terror and violence.
And they are leaving the gangs in droves.
Bible studies and worship services are being held in prison and those in attendance are accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and fleeing their previous violent lifestyles. And once these former gang members leave prison, they are in turn discipling other gang members and leading them to Christ! This is real discipleship on display and is beautiful to witness.
The power of Jesus is truly supernatural. Christ’s love has the power to reach and save even those who have lived a hard life ridden with violence and death. And now, these former gang members can experience the everlasting peace and power of Jesus.
But while gang members allow this “one time shot” as a way out – it comes with a catch. Current gang members watch these new Christians closely and if they see them participating in any criminal activity, or not being a devoted Christian, they will kill them. Being a true follower of Christ is life or death for those who fled the gang lifestyle. Once they leave the gang and become a Christian, there is no turning back.
Carlos Montano was a member of Barrio 18 for 22 years until he decided to leave the violent world of murder and violence for Christ. But he knows, if he messes up, he will be killed.
“Tattoos cover his face. The number 18 is tattooed 18 times on his body, a reference to his past allegiance to the Barrio 18 gang. During his years in the gang, he says, he kidnapped and robbed, and he raped women. He was sentenced to prison for those crimes, and thanks to an evangelical pastor there, he found God. That was nine months ago. Now, he says, God knows about his past and has forgiven him.
“I’m a Christian. And the gang respects that,’ Montano says. ‘But if I fail as a Christian, they will kill me.’”
These gang members understand the power of true redemptive grace. God’s word says, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17).
These gang members made the decision to leave everything for Christ. And now thousands of lives are being changed as these former gang members are leading others to Christ. As Christians, this is what we are called to do. We are called to go out and preach the Gospel – even to the most hardened of hearts.
No one is too far gone for Jesus to reach and He has the transformational power to save souls. El Salvador is a bright display of the power of God and how His word can truly transform even the most hardened of hearts.
As Christians, we must continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in El Salvador and pray the ones who have come to know Christ can experience Him richly and remain steadfast and faithful. In addition, we must pray for those who have not yet experienced the transformational love of Jesus Christ will come to know Him personally as Lord.
What are your thoughts on Jesus being the only way out for these violent gang members?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments below. And please continue to pray Christ will reach even more lives in El Salvador.