El Salvador is a country of volcanoes dotted with coffee plantations and valleys filled with sugarcane fields. It is also a country of barbed-wire fences, security guards with guns, and neighbourhoods where visitors must roll down the car windows so that the gangs’ teenage postes can see who goes in and out. The Colonia Dina is one such neighbourhood, a jumble of working-class houses decorated with plants and Christmas lights, and sheet-metal shacks surrounded by rubbish and muddy chickens.
At the bottom of a hill under a drooping almond tree stands the Eben-Ezer church, a yellow concrete building barely distinguishable from the houses on either side. A small congregation gathers three times a week in a high-ceilinged sanctuary with rows of plastic chairs, a platform for the rock band that accompanies the Pentecostal service, a podium for the pastors and little else. Down a staircase in the back left corner, in rooms normally used for Bible study, former gang members bake bread by day and sleep on thin mattresses on the floor by night.
At first glance, the church’s leaders make an odd couple. Nelson Moz is Eben-Ezer’s official pastor, a baby-faced man in his 50s with glasses and a thick moustache. Early last year, he opened his doors to Wilfredo Gómez, a 41-year-old gangster-turned-preacher with twinkling eyes and a mystical church named the Last Trumpet. The two pastors acknowledge that they’re trying to do what many consider impossible: spirit away members of El Salvador’s powerful gangs. But they believe this is the country’s only hope.