Evangelicals and Gangs in Central America

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Evangelical churches today can be found in almost every neighborhood in Latin America. Evangelicals today account for almost 20 percent of the population in Latin America up from 3 percent three decades ago. In Central American countries, evangelicals are near majorities. During immigration hearings, Central American evangelicals often express fear of returning to their country of origin due to gang animosity towards them. If they were practicing evangelicals before coming to the United States, they often ran afoul of gangs. Their fear is certainly valid given the current conditions in particular in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Evangelical Christians abhor violence and as a matter of principle refuse cooperation with illegal activities as practiced by gangs and other criminal elements. Their religious convictions further endanger them because their resistance to threats is a moral imperative. In their neighborhoods, evangelicals often express their Christian beliefs strongly and openly to gang members, attempting to convert them to Chrisianity and away from gang life. Evangelicals also have active programs to prevent young men in particular from joining gangs. These gang conversion and prevention efforts have also been supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). They also naturally atagonize gang members [1] .

Gangs such as MS-13 and M18 see Evangelical Christian groups as a threat to their retaining or gaining gang members. Throughout Central America, gangs have targeted Evangelical Churches for attack. Gangs also work to penetrate these churches by inserting members into these organization in order to inform fellow gang members of activities or undermine these churches anti-gang activities [2] .

Evangelical Christian groups have also closely associated themselves with right-wing conservative parties such as the Nationalist Republican Alliance in El Salvador and the National Party of Honduras which have been most antagonistic towards gangs and have pushed for “mano dura” or hard-handed policies to crack down on gangs. Thus, gang members view these Christian groups as extensions of far-right anti-gang movements which clearly pose a threat to them [3] .

U.S. Army War College Professor Max G. Manwaring has stated that MS-13 “control expressions of political and religious activities…[and that] a religious leader who is perceived as resistant to gang control would be punished as any other member of the populace.” [4] In the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers, the UNHCR has stated that “participating in civil, religious, or other organizations [are] viewed as undermining gang authority.” In addition, the UNHCR has emphasized that “religious leaders…who represent an alternative source of authority to the gangs and who opposed them or are perceived by the gangs as doing so…are at risk of violent retaliation.” [5]

As a entity who strongly resists gang threats and even work to reduce gang membership, Evangelical groups likely constitute a protected social group. Those who through religious conviction resist gang intimidation are seen as existential threats to MS-13 and M18 because if this social group is allowed and is successful in standing up to gang intimidation without retribution, the whole structure of gang power dissolves. This line of reasoning can be used in immigration hearings to make the case that strongly practicing evangelicals have rightful fear of returning to their country of origin.

Notes:

[1] For an excellent discussion of religious freedom in Guatemala see: Report on Religious Freedom in Guatemala published by The Institute on Religion & Public Policy.

[2] “New Brooms In Central America,” Latin American Special Report, 2014, ISSN 1741-4474. See also, Dennis P. Petri “Interface of Churches and Organised Crime in Latin America.,” World Watch Research, 2012, pages 20-21; Dirk Kruijt, Organised Crime, Drugs and the Political System in Latin America, report commissioned by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, 2011.

[3] “Can a Dose of Scripture Cure Moral Ills?” Latin American Weekly Report, July 15, 2010, ISSN 0143-5280.

[4] Declaration of U.S. Army War College Professor Dr. Max G. Manwaring dated May 17, 2015.

[5] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from El Salvador (March 2016). Available at: http://www.ecoi.net/file_upload/1930..._56e706e94.pdf


About The Author

Robert Kirklandis a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and operational Latin American Foreign Area Officer. He has a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, West Point and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He has provided expert testimony on drug cartel and gang violence in Mexico and Central America since his retirement from the Army in 2014. He can be reached at info@robertkirklandconsulting.com


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