This morning we met with Bishop Fabio Colindres, the Roman Catholic Bishop who serves as Military Ordinariate of El Salvador along with Raul Mijango, an ex-guerrilla and former congressman. Bishop Barahona hosted this meeting at the Anglican Cathedral in San Salvador. In addition to our group, Noah Bullock, Executive Director of Foundation Cristosal and Olivia Amadon, Trips Coordinator for Foundation Cristosal, Lynette Wilson, Episcopal News Service Editor and Reporter and Jose Lopez, an attorney who works with Bishop Barahona at the Diocese of El Salvador were there.
Bishop Colindres and Mr. Mijango shared some sobering statistics: there are 20 jails in El Salvador with a capacity of 8,500, but currently over 26,000 are housed there. The Bishop then shared why he was interested in this work: -- searching for the well-being of the community, human rights and peace. Mr. Mijango and Bishop Colindres started working together in the prisons, and they knew it would be tough. The Bishop started working with gangs to stop violence -- 14 people were dying every day in El Salvador before 14 months ago, which made El Salvador at that time the second most violent country in the world. Now, 14 months after the truce, there are 5.6 deaths per day -- making El Salvador in the 40's for death rates.
What happened? Reconciliation. How? Two months of intense work by these two men. What did they get the gangs to agree to?
1. stop aggressiveness between gangs
2. stop crimination activities such as kidnapping, rape, robbery, extortion
3. voluntarily give up weapons
4. allow people to move around safely in communities
5. add their social organization to contribute to local development.
Since January 2012 when the truce was reached, there are now 9 municipalities that were most violent in El Salvador that have reduced violence.
How did they do this? The gang members trusted these two men, and wanted a new life. Why did the gang members choose to change? -- to both these reconcilers, the gang members saw the writing on the wall so to speak, and knew things had to change or the country was headed into another civil war. They want the opportunity to leave the life they have lead, but need opportunities to do so. For the most part, gang members have come from the poorest of circumstances, raised in violent situations of all kinds.
As Mr. Mijango clearly stated, "We need the hand of God to help us. The purpose of this effort is to change hearts and minds, and this is not possible with only the action of humans."
The greatest work has to be done with the community previously victimized by gang members. How do we trust them? It is hard to trust someone who has hurt you. Yet, it is the gospel message to forgive when one repents. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and will continue to unfold in the months and years ahead.
Other churches, such as the Anglican Diocese of El Salvador have joined this effort, and support it fully. Bishop Barahona spoke eloquently about his own diocese's efforts, and his support of the work of Bp. Colindres and Mr. Mijango.
One statement that was made was that gangs did not exist in El Salvador until Los Angeles gang members were deported back to El Salvador. Jose Lopez stated that the gangs could not have taken root in El Salvador unless there was fertile soil here to plant them. There is poverty and other social issues that lead to fertilizing the soil for all sorts of social ills. Bishop Colindres and Mr. Mijango are trying to do something about this -- by talking about reconciliation and new life. By trying to stem the tide, along with other religious institutions in the country, of poverty and need. They believe in the gospel message of Jesus Christ -- reconciliation and and love.
Our own Rev. Julie Bryant asked, "what steps are you taking to keep another leadership from emerging to split the gangs and what, if any, people are emerging to become another gang?" Mr. Mijango answered her question this way: "the historical leadership knows the opportunity they are being given -- they are spreading this new good work. The good thing about the historical leadership is that the new leadership that is coming up are following this good path -- the leaders of the group are the future (good) leaders of the community."
This was one of the most powerful meetings I have had the privilege to attend, and I was honored to be there and hear about the amazing work of these two men. Reconciliation -- it is very difficult work, and it's not over in El Salvador.
I wrote pages and pages in my journal while I attended the meeting. I have chosen to give an overview here, and there are many aspects of the conversation I have left out. I apologize for that, but I wanted to bring the highlights here. Please do NOT respond with your political point of view on this blog -- this blog is simply to report mission and ministry -- and gang members need the love of God in Christ as much as anyone -- maybe more. Bishop Barahona said that we are ALL children of God-- and we need to remember that, and treat each other accordingly. This is difficult work, and it is being attended to in El Salvador.
After we left the meeting, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed to Cielo Mar, a center on the ocean owned by the Diocese of El Salvador. I leave you with some images from the rest of the meeting and images of Cielo Mar.
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Location:San Salvador and Cielo Mar