Too-perfect storyline: El Salvador criminal gangs gain respect of evangelical churches, let members go

Here's a fascinating story I missed during the Fourth of July week: NPR reports on an unlikely "respect" between criminal gangs in El Salvador and the nation's evangelical churches.

I really enjoyed the piece and felt like the writer did some excellent reporting.

After reading it all, though, I found myself wondering — and there's a chance this is just me being overly skeptical — whether the narrative is a bit too perfect. 

In other words, life is complicated, and the NPR storyline is simple. Perhaps too simple.

I'll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, let's set the scene with the opening paragraphs:

In El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, people drive around with their car windows closed to avoid petty theft. But when they enter neighborhoods controlled by gangs, they keep their car windows open, to show their faces. That way the gangs know they're not an enemy.
In the center of one such neighborhood, known as La Dina, a tiny Baptist church sits on a narrow street. In a neighborhood notorious for violence, it is the one place gangs leave alone.
The church underscores the growing ties between gangs in El Salvador and evangelical Christianity. In a country where Roman Catholicism has traditionally predominated, evangelicalism is growing and has gained the respect and endorsement of gangs — a rare point of agreement even for rival groups like Barrio 18 and MS-13, the country's two biggest gangs.
It has also left many boys and men growing up in gang-controlled areas with stark choices: According to academic research and interviews with pastors and former gang members, their only alternative to joining a gang — or getting out of one — is to become a devoted member of an evangelical church.

Later, NPR quotes an expert who has studied the relationship between the gangs and the churches — and he's certainly a strong source:

It is this emphasis on personal transformation that makes El Salvador's gang members embrace evangelicalism, says José Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University's Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, who has studied the relationship between the two.
In Cruz's research, more than half of the Salvadoran gang members he surveyed identify as evangelicals and attend church services an average of 15 times a month. In contrast, just 17 percent of gang members identify as Catholic.
"They feel the evangelicals are more welcoming despite their criminal past. And they feel embraced in these conversions by the [evangelical] church," he says.
This phenomenon has coincided with the growth of evangelical Christianity in El Salvador and other Latin American countries. About half of Salvadorans identify as Roman Catholic and 40 percent as evangelical Christian.
Becoming a devoted member of an evangelical church at a young age is the only way many adolescent boys are able to avoid being roped into a gang, Cruz says. And it's also the only way for them to get out of a gang if they're in it, short of leaving the country.

Finally, the piece ends with compelling testimony from a former longtime gang member named Carlos Montano:

If he had stayed active in the gang he would very likely have been killed, he says. Now that's he is out, being a casual churchgoer isn't an option. The gangs check up on former members to see how often they attend services and whether they are drinking or smoking on the side. They want to make sure former members don't engage in criminal activity on the side that could ever pose a threat.
"I'm a Christian. And the gang respects that," Montano says. "But if I fail as a Christian, they will kill me."

So, what's my concern?

First, much of what NPR reports as fact — including the details in the lede — has no direct attribution, although the fourth paragraph links the narrative to "academic research and interviews with pastors and former gang members."

But my bigger issue is this: the voices not represented in the piece. That would be local law enforcement officials and gang leaders themselves. Granted, such interviews might be difficult to obtain. I mean, it's unlikely that the gangs have media relations staff.

However, I would put more credibility into the NPR storyline if the cops said, "Yes, we've witnessed this." Or if the gangs said, "Yes, we leave the evangelical churches alone."

That said, I'd urge you to read the piece yourself and let me know what you think. Am I being too skeptical? Or did the story raise the same questions for you?

By all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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