Jails Turned into Classrooms-How El Salvador rehabilitates MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs through the program, I Change.

Jails Turned into Classrooms-How El  Salvador rehabilitates MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs through the program, I Change.

Until not long ago, they were enemies. But today, ex-gang members of Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha coexist in a prison on the east region of El Salvador where they seek rehabilitation. When Marlon Padilla, ex-member of MS-13 found out he would be going to the Gotera jail, he worried about his cellmates. “How will I, a member of MS-13, cohabit with those who used to be my enemies?”


Photo: Oscar Rivera. AFP


Yo Cambio-I Change, is a rehabilitative program that was launched in the Centro Penal of San Francisco Gotera in, Morazan, El Salvador to give ex-gang members a second chance. Through this program, inmates are integrated into vocational programs, participate in training schools where they learn to cut hair, attend workshops, engage in Bible study, and take music classes, among others. After serving their sentence and participating in the various programs, many gang members retire from a life of crime, renounce criminal groups and join a Christian church. In jail, they knead bread, weave and draw. Most want their tattoos removed.


pandilla arte
Photo: Oscar Rivera. AFP.


El Penal de San Francisco Gotera (a jail), is located 161 kilometers from El Salvador’s capital. The jail has a capacity to hold 300 inmates but houses almost 1600. The roofs are made out of metallic sheets that trap the heat, and the prison is weaved with narrow corridors. Despite the architecture, the cells have been turned into classrooms.


mapa de morazan
Departamento Morazan. Photo: Consejo Nacional de la Judicatura de El Salvador.


Local Salvadoran news refer to the ex-gang members as interns. Moises Linares, who until 2  years ago was one of the most dangerous leaders in the jail, is now a lead instructor in the bakery workshops; a trade he learned at 13, thanks to his grandmother. These days he is apologetic about his past, seeks a life change and wishes the number 18 tattooed on his forehead would be removed. He wants to be better for his children, ages 6 and 4.


Moises Linares
Moises Linares. Photo: AFP. Oscar Rivera.


Linares, an ex-member of the Barrio 18 gang credits God for the change: “With the passing of time, the Lord has accomplished great things in my life. He brought me here, He has me in this place where I can impart teachings to my brothers so that they can become people of service when leaving this place.”

Most participate in Bible study, with only a small minority (43 inmates) rejecting to join the evangelical  churches led by pastors who used to be gang members.


pandilla 4
Photo: AFP. Oscar Rivera.


El Salvador’s local news state the gangs were born in the streets of Los Angeles and once deported to El Salvador, they commit serious crimes and have been officially blamed for the majority of homicides in the country. According to statistics by AFP TV, a global news agency, there are approximately 70,000 members, with 17,000 of them in jail with many of them wearing gang symbols on their skin.


pandilla musica
Photo AFP. Oscar Rivera.


The rehabilitation programs take place under extraordinary measures of security, such as the prohibition to receive visits. Almost half of El Salvador’s prison population (43.7%) corresponds to gang members from Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18: a total of 17,000 inmates in 6 prisons.


tejiendo pandilla
Photo: AFP, Oscar Rivera.


Serving Time 

According to official figures, cited in El Salvador’s Clarin,  3,954 homicides were registered in El Salvador in 2017. This is 60 per 100,000 inhabitants: one of the highest rates in the world.

The Salvadoran prison system is overcrowded: as of July 9, it had 38,815 prisoners, of which 43.7% are gang members.

Mara Salvatrucha and her dissident faction 503 add 8,690 prisoners (508 women). Barrio 18 has 6,337 (516 women). Other organizations add 721 imprisoned members.

There are 1,276 minor gang members housed in 6 shelters. 694 of MS-13, and 582 of Barrio 18.


pandilla lee
Photo: AFP, Oscar Rivera.


Together inside

Marlon Steward Padilla (40) belonged to the Mara Salvatrucha and has completed 16 of the 70-year sentence he received for various crimes. In the Gotera prison, he was reunited with his son Julio Alexander (24), who was in the rival Barrio 18 and received a 20-year sentence for homicide.

“When I saw my son I felt happy,” says Marlon, “I hugged him, kissed him and said, ‘The time I could not give you on the street, I’m going to give you here.'”


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