Gangs in Central America are showing a new respect for evangelical churches and those ex-members who convert to them, but those “backsliding” from the church may face a good deal of danger, according to researcher Robert Brenneman of Notre Dame University, who presented a paper on the topic at the SSSR meeting.
In conducting research among gangs and former gang members in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Brenneman found this practice of “evangelical exemption” fairly common. As long as departing members of a gang claimed a conversion and went to an evangelical (usually Pentecostal) church, they were considered exempt from the punishment that a usual gang deserter would face, which could mean death. Part of the reason for the lenient attitude toward evangelical converts is that gang members believe that these converts have special divine protection and if they harm them they might incur a curse against the gang.
Another reason for the hands-off approach is that former members who adopt an evangelical lifestyle are 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 an attitude of “turn the other cheek” insures against vengeance of former gang members.
But the problems start when former gang members who have converted backslide and stop attending church. 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. Murders of such evangelical defectors are not infrequent. To ensure that former members stay on the evangelical straight and narrow, gangs will actually monitor these converts, according to Brenneman.