The Intercept, November 2018.
There are an estimated 60,000 gang members in El Salvador. Benjamin knew many who wanted to leave the gangs. He wanted to show them it was possible.
Benjamin suspected the Salvadoran gang Barrio 18 Revolucionarios would kill him when he asked permission to leave. He was 21 years old and had been in the gang for a decade. He was ready to die to get out.
He had joined at age 12 because his world didn’t feel right. He thought the gang looked cool by comparison; it took him years to name the deeper attraction. Neighborhoods like his were violent places where no one made a living wage, and the justice system was absent except to punish. Kids like him were either ignored or treated like criminality coursed through their veins. But not if he was Barrio 18. The gang, with its brotherhood and strict rules, promised him protection and stability. Here were his wafer-thin options: Benjamin could remain passive, buffeted by the winds of danger and impunity. Or he could do something proactive. He chose to act.
Within a few years, he saw that the gang’s promise was a siren song. A few years after that, he found the courage to plot his escape.
He called his mother to say goodbye. He summoned the leaders of the area cliques. He delivered his speech: He had done much for the gang, killing dozens who wished the group harm, especially MS-13 rivals. He had collected extortion taxes to feed and clothe the tens of thousands of members and their families and to hire defense lawyers when they were arrested. Now he felt called to evangelical Christianity, so he had researched churches and chosen one that was strict; no vices like alcohol or non-Christian music allowed. It would keep him out of trouble. He had earned his retirement.
Benjamin is about 5 1/2 feet tall. He is thin and angular; his face runs from cheekbones to sharp nose to jutting jaw. He has cobalt hair cropped close and pupils so glossy dark they’re nearly mirrors. He looks like a falcon. He could play Dracula. And in that moment, he stood before his audience, the gang’s leaders, pleading for a second chance at life.
To his surprise, they said yes. They let him go. He had to check in regularly and couldn’t do anything to harm the gang, like snitching. He couldn’t ask them for favors or use his previous affiliation to gain anything. They would observe his change to ensure it was genuine. They reserved the right to call him back to active duty. But with those conditions, he was free.
I met Benjamin five weeks later. (“Benjamin” is a pseudonym; as for most people in this article, to use his real name would cause an immediate threat to his life.) We met as part of a project: For four years, I followed four kids as they tried to leave their gangs. None of them knew each other. They were all under age 22.
One fled MS-13 without permission. She changed her name, moved across the country, and had a child. The gang tracked her down. Now she is paying to save her child’s life, and her own, with constant criminal favors. Another, a young man who also deserted MS-13 without permission, withdrew from our interviews, so ashamed of his past that he decided to amputate it, to banish his former self. The third retired with permission from Barrio 18, found work at a chain of thrift stores run by evangelical Christians, went to church every day, and raised his toddler son. His name was Jonathan Osvaldo Tobar. On August 7, 2015, he was shot dead in the middle of a market by unidentified gunmen. His funeral was a tense juxtaposition of the people one meets in such a life.
The fourth was Benjamin.
Paradoxically, the danger faced by gang members increases when they leave. In the gang, Benjamin was a soldier in a war. He was armed and he was backed by an army. But the problem with retiring is that the battlefield has no boundaries, and the war has no end. That’s in part due to a colloquial belief in Salvadoran society that gang members are people forever ruined. Given the havoc they wreak, they are reviled. So society blocks on-ramps to civilian life like education and employment. Police see them as fodder for vengeance. For former enemies, they’re easy prey.
Yet even in the hardest moments, Benjamin believed he could be salvaged. There are an estimated 60,000 gang members in El Salvador. What is the solution to this problem if they can’t retire?
He didn’t expect society to welcome him. “People don’t trust us. They don’t like us and I understand why,” he told me. “If I’m well-known in some places, it isn’t because I was a good person. Imagine how much evil I did to numerous families, how much pain I caused them.” He saw the ostracization as karma. “I’m paying off a tiny bit of the many things I did.”
Kids like Benjamin try to leave their gangs by hiding in plain sight. They bury their pasts and attempt to start over. They do it in myriad ways and so well that often they’re even unaware of each other. Alone, they shed skin like any wild creature and take on a new identity.
But their needs are akin to those of child soldiers or war veterans — and the devastating cruelty wrought by gangs leaves little public will to provide that kind of support. As a result, the process is like burrowing through a boulder with a screwdriver. Exhausting. Seemingly impossible. You sweat it out alone.
There are some exceptions. Retiring to evangelical Christianity, as Benjamin did, is a path that has existed almost as long as the gangs themselves. But it, too, can be hazardous. And as Benjamin would find, swapping gang for church means trading one black-and-white vision of the world for another. It was initially effective but became insufficient the longer he lived and the more his world blossomed into color.
There was one more problem. El Salvador is small. Like the civilians threatened by gangs — who very frequently must flee the country to survive — kids trying to leave gangs can only hide for so long.
Benjamin’s attempt began in December 2015. We met nearly once a week. He shared his experiences with me, a foreign journalist, because he was desperate to circulate his story. He knew many gang members who wanted to leave, but they were afraid. He wanted to show them they could.
“I’d like to be recognized by society. It’s not that I want to be famous. It’s like with young people who want to be guitarists — they have an example of some well-known guitarist,” he told me. “There is no example for me, to show me a better life is possible. I have to be that example.”
No Extra Lives
VIOLENCE DIDN’T APPEAR in Benjamin’s life when he joined the gang. He was born into violence.
His uncle, who raised him as a son, was a guerrilla fighter in the 12-year Salvadoran civil war, which ended in 1992 after a nominally democratic government, funded by billions of dollars from the U.S., tried to annihilate a leftist guerrilla force. The war turned his uncle into an alcoholic who spent most of his time playing war-themed video games. When 12-year-old Benjamin murdered a boy in a gang initiation — a repelling and traumatic experience that became easier with repetition, he told me — in his mind he retreated to images from his uncle’s games, as if willing the bloody boy to come back to life in a next round.
The civil war introduced particular kinds of violence to El Salvador. Government death squads pulled students off buses and church workers from their beds, aiming to puncture leftist thought and litter the roadsides with tortured corpses as messages to those considering dissent. Thousands of youth taken by the state simply disappeared.
In December 1988, the Spanish Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró, who lived and taught at the Central American University in San Salvador, described what raged around him in the introduction to a book called “The Social Psychology of War.” Thousands fled the armed forces, “pursued like animals,” while in the U.S., President Ronald Reagan boasted that those same forces were defenders of democracy. Reagan was performing a part, “‘the good guy in the movie,’ ‘the righteous cowboy,’” the priest wrote, and was ignorant about El Salvador. But his administration’s “ideological blindness and tooth-and-nail militarism,” Martín-Baró wrote, turned the country into “a living laboratory in which the principles of ‘low intensity conflict’ have been put into practice,” thus changing El Salvador forever. “War has become part of the frame of reference of Salvadoran lives. In some way, the fact that there’s war is now assumed as ‘natural,’ and no one is surprised by the daily aspects of shootouts and ambushes, cadavers and wounded.” Martín-Baró was murdered by the army less than a year later.
On January 16, 1992, 16 signatures on paper, the peace accords, officially ended the war. Violence remained.
Gangs that had formed among war refugees in Los Angeles were then deported to El Salvador. The government shored up its post-war power by turning on this new internal enemy, meeting it with a bellicose security policy called mano dura, “iron fist.”
It wasn’t that murders spiked when the gangs arrived. In fact, the first years of the 21st century were a time of relative peace: The homicide rate dropped and reached a post-war low. But the ruling right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known by its Spanish acronym ARENA, feared its weak prognosis in the 2004 presidential elections. So in 2003, the president announced mano dura, which had the simultaneous effect of fishing up gangs from a cauldron of national problems and then selling ARENA as the only force capable of vanquishing them. ARENA won.
Gangs offered an opportunity: Political parties could prop up this straw man — young people in poor communities — and then humiliate, incarcerate, beat, and kill them, and emerge victorious at ballot boxes nationwide.
Between July 2003 and July 2005, the police arrested 30,934 alleged gang members in SWAT-style raids choreographed for news cameras. Many detainees were released and re-arrested 48 hours later, according to scholar José Miguel Cruz. The Salvadoran president erroneously claimed in 2004 that gangs committed 40 percent of the country’s murders; the national coroner’s office counted only 10 percent.
Mano dura was repression masquerading as policy — but 80 percent of the population bought into it. “Gang members have a mental illness called murder,” said police chief Ricardo Meneses. The following year, the FBI described in a press release how it was “ganging up on” gangs by partnering with Salvadoran authorities.
Mano dura has remained and mutated ever since. In response, the gangs became sophisticated and heinous. Their victims multiply in a country besieged by grief and fear. For those who suffer, the most important thing is not that the policy doesn’t work, or that violence-as-security is a self-perpetuating cycle. Mano dura gave victims a name for the cause of their misery. It gave them a stability similar to what Benjamin sought in the gang.
The policy had striking success in just two areas: in continually selling itself despite being counterproductive, and in selling the image of gang members as irreformable youth who no longer belong to El Salvador or any nation, to whom nothing is owed but iron bars or bullets.
In January 2015, police director Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde announced that “any member of the institution who needs to use their firearm to comply with the duty of self-defense, or defense of others, should do so without fear.” The reaction was vivid: In 2014, police had killed 49 suspected gang members. In 2015, they killed 320. The police followed the U.S. model, creating elite anti-gang forces, one of which did target practice on images of Osama bin Laden’s face. “These two gangs need to be annihilated,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to the Salvadoran press in May 2015, when he was hired as a security consultant whose services cost millions of dollars.
“I see the faces of wealthy politicians, and then I see [people] who work all day, every day and make $5 a day,” Benjamin told me in April 2016. “Why do so many youth become gang members? Because they see that. Why are they arming the police? There will be more deaths. They’re not thinking with their brains. They’re thinking of their money, of their power.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to members of MS-13, the one Salvadoran gang he’s apparently aware of, as “animals.” This is the same word he chose to refer to Middle Eastern combatants who he argued the U.S. should torture by waterboarding. He employs the term with a goal: to rally his base. The president, like Reagan before him, is ignorant of the situation. He is using gangs to increase his power. But in El Salvador, state security forces are torturing and murdering young people suspected of gang membership, and the words of the U.S. president are encouraging them.
This is the new war, a Russian doll of a war: gangs against each other, police against them all. Civilians again in the middle. It is as bloody as its predecessor, its engine pumped with the same gasoline: men who want power.
Benjamin wanted out.
THE FIRST THING Benjamin did on his first morning of freedom was smoke pot. “Habit,” he told me. Also terror. Still in bed, he burned through five blunts, paralyzed by a refrain: “What will come of me?”
Every day of the past decade of his life had been determined by the gang. The gang’s interests were his duties, its members were his peers. The gang’s risks were his and its forms of protection were too. But not anymore. He didn’t even have a place to live; he had woken up in the gang house, and today he must leave. Then, a scarier thought: There was a trade-off implicit in his decision. Yesterday he had an identity, but today he had freedom.
He bounced between hostels until just before Christmas, when he found an affordable apartment in an old brick structure near the National University of El Salvador, four stories tall and packed with people. He was relieved to have a room. He needed to lock himself in it for protection from former enemies and police — “people who want me dead” — but also from himself. He had spent most days high on marijuana or acid or cocaine before leaving the gang, and his zealous new evangelical identity prohibited drugs, so he was antsy to wean himself off them. He needed to whittle himself down to his acceptable parts, his holy parts.
Within days, it was clear that loneliness would be the hardest part.
He spent Christmas alone. He was a marked man now; it would put his mother at risk to be together on a predictable day. So he sat on the floor and leaned against the wall under a window. There were families gathered outside. “Everyone was so happy at midnight, giving each other hugs. A ton of people in the streets. And there I was, just listening to them. I laughed at the funny things they said,” he remembered, “and then I cried.” He got high and tried to sleep.
Leaving home was always risky. One afternoon, he arrived late to our meeting at the Metrocentro mall food court. The block around his apartment had been teeming with anxious cops — there had been a homicide — and he feared that an officer would arrest him, a solitary young man near a crime scene. So he waited until a neighbor with her toddler daughter offered to walk hand in hand as if he were an older son. Everyone knew the police were dangerous.
He tried reconnecting on Facebook with friends from childhood. One by one, they shut him out.
“It hurts to be in the streets,” he told me. “On the bus, I hear someone answer a phone and say, ‘Wait for me, I’ll be there soon!’ And I think, ‘No one is waiting for me anymore.’” He saw people hugging each other, walking to school or to a store, “all of those daily things that take people to other people.”
There was relief on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday evenings, when he could go to church services and youth group. Otherwise, he rarely left his apartment, except for our meetings. Most days, “I don’t speak a word,” he told me in late January. “Imagine spending just one full day staring at the wall.” Benjamin spent weeks like that. He simmered in regret. “I wish I could be a child again. I wish I could do none of the things I did with my life.”
As the weeks passed, Benjamin’s language changed. He became a fire-and-brimstone Christian. He diagnosed the downfall of a society that produced people like him, a biblical lineup of sinners: Prostitutes. Homosexuals. Drug addicts. Rap. Bad fathers. Women with necklines too low. Women who posted “half-naked photos on Facebook.” Women who were “losing their value.”
It was a straight path out of the gang. The world was still a battlefield, but he was now a soldier in a different army.
He made progress he could measure. Once, on a bus to pay rent with money that his aunt, an immigrant in the U.S., lent him, two men robbed him at gunpoint. I asked him if he considered retreating to his clique. “Look,” he said dreamily, as if in love. “When you return to Christ, you forget the gang.”
Searching for a job was hard. When asked for his resume, he had nothing to offer. He had to lie about his past. But employers wouldn’t hire a young man with no history.
Another complicating factor: He had been incarcerated in 2013, and he’d been violating the terms of his parole. He was obligated to study upon release, but that would mean regularly crossing MS-13 territory to get to the public school, which was too dangerous. Now there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
These struggles are nearly universal in the experience of those who try to leave Salvadoran gangs, but that doesn’t make them any easier to face. One day we visited one of Benjamin’s mentors, a pastor and former gang member named Julio Iglesia, who lived deep in a labyrinthine hot zone called Tikal. Iglesia was from the first generation of homegrown Barrio 18 members, the ones who joined what the deportees from California started. “In this country, there has never been peace,” he told me. “We live at war.”
Across from Iglesia sat a giant man, his face etched in “18” ink, trembling. The man had left the gang after serving a jail sentence. Days earlier, he narrowly avoided yet another murder attempt by a joint patrol of police and soldiers. But Iglesia interceded, saving him. “They want to kill me because of what I have on my body,” the man said. “They’ll never again see me doing something bad. They sought me out. It’s because of what I have on my body.”
The pastor’s wife hung wet laundry on a line on the front porch. She dashed inside and bolted the metal door when a group of kids, guns in hand, sprinted down the street toward the community border. Tikal was Barrio 18 and the neighbors were rivals. Iglesia warned us that we needed to leave because if gunfire broke out, the police would show up and splay out house to house. The state of siege would last until tomorrow. Benjamin was at great risk.
A tense 30 minutes passed before we could find someone with a car to hustle us out of the conflict zone.
For Benjamin, these were normal dangers. The chance to sit with someone who was once in his shoes was precious. But he was beginning to worry that he wasn’t strong enough to become good. Even the most faithful iron posture toward the world can’t save a holy soldier from loneliness.
Then he met Zelda.
You’re a Mess
THE NIGHT THEY met, Zelda came home from a bar and found Benjamin curled up drunk on the front steps. The landlord evicted disorderly residents, so Zelda hooked her thin arms under the new neighbor kid, who had spent weeks locked in his room down the hall. “I don’t think he ever even ate,” she told me later.
Zelda told me this story at a gay bar in San Salvador. She wore a sleeveless T-shirt and suspenders, her head half-shaved. Tattoos scaled her bicep. She spoke with a half-smile and a confident chin.
She deposited Benjamin in his apartment that first night, and the next morning, she woke up hungover and suspected he’d feel worse. She made soup and knocked on his door. He opened it, hair askew and eyes sleepy. “Take a shower, you’re a mess,” she laughed. “Then come eat, and then you can go back to bed.”
He stumbled into her apartment minutes later, smelling of soap, without pleasantries. This kid must have dropped out of the wilderness, she thought. He told me a few days later — months before I heard the story from Zelda — that he felt shy around this shockingly friendly stranger.
Zelda was a lesbian feminist painter who taught art therapy workshops to victims of domestic violence. He gazed at the walls covered in her paintings. “So you like art?” she asked. He mumbled something about loving it since he was a child. “He might have even drooled a little,” Zelda chuckled as she remembered in the bar. “He was in a trance.”
He told her he was a Christian, but she noticed a tattoo on his heel. “That’s a big tattoo for a Christian,” she joked. “He just laughed. He was always laughing,” she told me at the bar. “He never told me much about himself, just that he used to do drugs and graffiti and live on the street.”
For the duration of their friendship, Benjamin struggled with withholding his full story from Zelda. “I’m afraid she’ll reject me,” he told me at the time.
Zelda started bringing Benjamin meals. He seemed so lonely, and who could live like that, staring at four walls all day? She delivered the apartment building gossip: who was sleeping with whom, who he could trust and who he shouldn’t. One of the men on their floor was rumored to be MS-13. He was aggressive and referred to Zelda as “the dyke.” Benjamin started helping her avoid him.
Benjamin expected to face difficult tests on this journey to a new life. He didn’t expect Zelda. The church members who made his second chance possible, the only people who knew his full story, preached that people like Zelda were sinners akin to addicts and adulterers. People like Zelda were far from God, and Benjamin’s salvation would come from walking in the opposite direction.
But now he had company for the endless days. One afternoon, Benjamin wandered to the roof of the apartment building. Blinking in the sun, he found Zelda there painting. She was smoking a joint and offered him a drag. He said he used to smoke but was a Christian now. Zelda, an atheist, laughed and handed it to him. He took a drag.
He stood silently. He clearly was here to stay. “OK, kiddo,” she said. “Tell me, what color is the sky?” He looked up, then looked back at her. “No one’s ever asked me that,” he said. A few seconds later he ventured: “Blue?” She smiled. “That’s what everyone thinks. But there are many tones that make up that blue. Look back up. Tell me what they are.” He smiled and inhaled sharply. “He always used to do that when he was excited about something,” she told me at the bar, mimicking him and laughing. “He was like a child, so excited about the world.”
“You’re not a bad guy,” she told him. “You’ve got a good heart.”
In the next conversation that Benjamin and I had, he repeated this phrase three times: “You’ve got a good heart.”
Soon, Zelda was toting Benjamin out with her friends, other lesbian feminist activists. She had to defend him more than once. To explain himself, he could only offer that he used to be a drug-addicted street kid and was now an evangelical Christian, neither of which played well here. But Zelda is charismatic. If anyone could sneak an evangelical kid without a history into a lesbian feminist clan, it was Zelda.
They took him to a concert by the Guatemalan rapper Rebeca Lane. They took him to the beach for a weekend. He told them he didn’t know how to swim, an excuse to avoid removing his shirt and exposing his torso covered in Barrio 18 tattoos. “He was stuck to a plastic chair the whole time,” Zelda remembered. They took him to dinners at fast food restaurants at malls. Sometimes they’d end the night at a bar. Benjamin chuckled uncomfortably as he recounted how, more than once, the group separated into couples, a long table of women kissing — plus Benjamin, the boy nursing a Pilsner, the evangelical with a big secret.
“I think that if they knew what I used to be, they’d immediately reject me,” he told me then. Once he asked one of Zelda’s friends what her opinion was of the kids who retire from gangs. “I’ve never met anyone like that,” she told him. “If I ever did, I’d have to think hard about it.” He didn’t say anything else.
“I know them, and I know now that they’re good people, and I’d have criticized them once, people like this,” he told me. In fact, he loved hanging out with Zelda’s friends because they had pride in spite of society’s rejection. “They value themselves so much,” he said. Benjamin was born into a hyper-macho society and then he joined the gang, which concentrates that machismo. He’d never had friends who autopsied reggaeton songs to air out their misogyny, much less queer women.
But this wasn’t easy. Apart from Zelda, the church was all he had. “It’s God who has allowed me to step aside [from the gang], but this confuses me,” he told me.
Benjamin had never lived outside the battlefield. Zelda was teaching him to see parts of life that are invisible in war.
During the beach weekend, they walked the shore. She pointed to a piece of driftwood. Benjamin saw nothing in it, but Zelda’s finger traced its outline in the air and then he could see: It was a woman, waist to hip to thigh. They coaxed it from the waves and whittled it into an ad hoc sculpture. “I feel like I’m falling in love with life,” he told me later.
But he wasn’t naive. “Sometimes I feel like my destiny is to die for having been a gang member,” he told me. He felt that it wouldn’t matter what he did to change; the end result would be the same. “But I find the motivation in myself,” he said. “I carry on.”
Left for Dead
BENJAMIN HAD JUST finished buying groceries when a police patrol detained him at a bus stop in a middle-class neighborhood called San Luis. It was a Wednesday evening in April, at about 7:30 p.m. When one officer lifted Benjamin’s shirt and discovered his tattooed torso, he said to the others, “Ah, here’s one we can kill.” They loaded him into the back seat of the patrol truck, folding him over at the waist so he could not be seen through the window, and drove him to a police station, where they led him into a room through a back entrance.
For the next several hours, a group of officers tortured him. The torture was methodical and fit the patterns recorded that year by human rights investigators: They maced him, thrust his head into a bucket of water to simulate drowning, hung him upside down, and beat him until he lost consciousness. They put a plastic bag over his head to simulate suffocation, smacked him in the face with the butts of their rifles, and kicked him until he felt his ribs “bend.” Benjamin drifted in and out of consciousness. “They’re just going to beat me to death,” he remembers thinking. But the police had another plan.
They put him back in the truck, again doubled over. Benjamin estimates that it was past midnight. The officers drove around looking for kids walking the streets in Barrio 18 neighborhoods, whom he said they planned to execute. Then they’d kill Benjamin and position the boys’ bodies together as if they had died after ambushing the police. This is a method of extrajudicial murder common in El Salvador since 2015.
Benjamin was lucky; they found no one to kill. But the officers decided he was weak enough that they could just throw him out, shirtless, in MS-13 territory, where his tattoos would make him a quick target. They tossed his body in front of a graffiti-covered house in an MS-13 stronghold called Los Llanitos and drove away.
He lay still. Then he crawled through shrubbery and ditches on the side of the road. He made it to La Santisima Trinidad, a nearby Barrio 18 neighborhood, where a young gang member on lookout duty took him to the clique leader, who recognized Benjamin’s old alias and offered him shelter for the night. Benjamin was wary. He knew he was not allowed to ask favors under retirement rules, but the leader told him this was different. So he accepted, and the next morning, they drove him to his apartment and carried his swollen body up the stairs.
We saw each other two weeks later. He said he had forgiven his torturers.
Benjamin was five months out of the gang, and life was a wonder. It was as if he had been blind and gifted sight. This made him extremely generous toward other people’s wrongs, including his torturers. He understood the police like he did his former self: locked in a war between brotherhoods, kept there by a screwed-up world.
But the brush with death unsettled him. He asked me for a favor: If I ever read in the paper that he died in an armed confrontation with police, to please debunk that story. “I’m telling you that I will never go back to the gang. Never. Never,” he swore. He desperately wanted other youth to know it was possible to leave, and he wanted to remain proof of it, alive or dead.
In late August, though, his resolve was tested. He began to receive messages from his former clique.
Five months earlier, the Salvadoran government had begun a draconian policy called “extraordinary measures,” meant to seal off gang prisons. Inside the prisons, food and drinking water were restricted, and skin diseases and tuberculosis ripped through the population in a torrent, killing 53 percent more inmates in 2017 than the year before. The Red Cross could no longer enter prisons, nor could inmates’ families. Originally temporary, parts of the policy have since become permanent, with the support of U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes, despite an outcry from the United Nations and Red Cross.
Between the suffering in the prisons and the extrajudicial murders outside of them, his former clique decided they needed everyone on duty.
At just past 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, a gang member sent Benjamin an audio clip via Facebook listing nearly 20 members of their clique who had been arrested or killed since Benjamin left. “The situation with the system is so black right now I don’t even consider going outside,” he said. Then he wrote in nearly illegible gang slang: “Activate again asshole. Damn we need people.” Then, “Help us out. We’re going to figure out how to pull up the neighborhood. This is our time.”
Benjamin dodged. “Truly I’d like to but the truth is that the price is high for turning your back on God,” he wrote. “But I do want to talk to you about many things, nothing bad, just important.” He was suggesting that he would try to convert his former homeboy, and he hoped it would quiet the demands.
Then one evening in mid-September, at just past midnight, another member of the clique wrote on WhatsApp with a more concrete request: They needed to find $3,000 to pay a lawyer for incarcerated homies. They asked Benjamin to find the money. “I’m going to try to figure out how I can help you,” Benjamin responded. Then he wrote to me, “They don’t want that answer. They want me to activate again.” That is, they didn’t just want his money. They wanted their soldier back.
This wasn’t an invitation. He began to believe he was not far from his tomb. If he refused the clique’s demand, they might kill him along with his surviving family members — his mom and 4-year-old niece, his late sister’s child. The three of them could try to flee the country, but with his arrest warrant, he couldn’t go anywhere legally. He could kill himself. Or he could join again, which would prove society right that he was impossible to salvage.
“I want to die, I don’t know what to do, and I’m afraid,” he told me. “I wish I could run and scream and cry until I just die.”
Benjamin was arrested before the month was over. He was accused of extorting more than $7,000 from a business with a group of other young people.
In the first phone call he made to his mother from the police holding cell, he swore that he was innocent and asked her to tell me. He said there was proof in the house where they were arrested.
So his mother and I went. Benjamin and two young men who lived there were arrested together, and the boys’ mother answered our knock. She was clearly traumatized. She spoke to us, through a door cracked open, for 15 minutes. She said the boys had been playing guitar in a room when the police arrived, forced their way in, tied everyone up, and beat Benjamin and the brothers. Then they ransacked the house while insulting her for raising “rats.” They detained her youngest child in the police cruiser, threatening to turn him over to child services for her maternal incompetence.
Telling the story, she seemed to experience a flashback. At least they didn’t take her youngest, she said. She was struggling to pay the daily fees for her sons’ meals in the police holding cells. She was bitter and scared and didn’t see Benjamin’s mother as an ally. She had no allies. “I wish I could fly away,” she said. “Anywhere but this country.”
Benjamin’s mother had been silent, afraid the woman would slam the door. As if coaxing a cowering animal, she said that Benjamin told her that something in the home proved that the boys were innocent. The woman disappeared for a few moments. She returned and slipped Benjamin’s Bible through the narrow opening.
A Religious Shield
A BIBLE IS not proof of anything.
This is Salvadoran society’s Catch-22 with ex-gang members: The Bible is only proof if we believe Benjamin. We cannot be sure he didn’t do it. And how are we to believe someone who we know is capable of so much harm?
The night the police tortured Benjamin, they found his Bible in his backpack and accused him of using it as a shield, of faking Christianity. The accusation isn’t without evidence. Some people have costumed themselves in evangelicalism while continuing to commit gang crimes. Or, even if Benjamin had actually retired, perhaps he participated in this one extortion to save his life. It was clear he had run out of options.
But the Salvadoran police also have a record of planting weapons and drugs on kids from poor communities, gang-identified or not, in order to arrest them.
I asked a retired member of MS-13 for their perception of the way the story ended. They reminded me that one potent gang tool to force retirees to reactivate was making false accusations to the police. Once the retiree is in the state’s hands — in prison — they’re also in the gang’s hands, because El Salvador jails gang members according to affiliation.
Another question is whether it matters. Benjamin’s goal was for someone to finally recognize that kids like him exist. Someone to ratify that he was doing everything possible to leave the battlefield. His goal was to share his process, in all its imperfections, in the hope that his story would loosen the chains that hold other kids hostage. He accomplished that goal at least.
But there is still a structure in place that prevented him — and many others — from achieving a sustainable new life. It’s a cage made of discrete bars. One is the iron fist: Mano dura inflates the power of gangs, legitimizes state abuses, and leaves unaddressed the injustices that cause the problem in the first place.
Another is the lack of options: Although employers are beginning to hire people like Benjamin — sometimes with careful support from U.S. federal agencies — this is still rare. Hiring them is far more labor-intensive for employers and involves risk. Ex-gang members are veterans of a particularly cruel and personal war, and they need acute, integrated emotional, logistical, and financial support to become civilians. El Salvador is full of hardworking unemployed people who’ve never been connected to gangs and don’t need that much from employers. So it’s less fraught to continue pushing gang members out of the equation, insisting that they are permanently ruined and must be locked up or disposed of, as if that weren’t a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In late 2017, Benjamin was found guilty of extortion and received a sentence of eight years in prison. His lawyer was a public defender who told me at one hearing, “He’s probably guilty. These kids always are.”
In May 2018, his mother sent me a short video by an international news agency about ex-gang evangelicals in the Gotera prison, where Benjamin is incarcerated. In it, there is a scene of a sea of inmates in white T-shirts, clapping and singing in a church service. And suddenly there he is. He stands among the throng, eyes closed, chin raised, mouth open in song.
This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and a fellowship with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, with support from the Ford Foundation.
Original illustrations by Clay Rodery.