This is not an exhaustive study on travel, missions, gang life, or history, but it is part of our story, and some of what we know from research and from our personal experience (others, may have a different experience, or different convictions on the matter).
El Salvador has a long history of war, violence, and oppression - dating back long before the 12-year-long civil war that began in 1980 (or ’79).
Look at the history of El Salvador (I could say SO much about this, and I love history, and studying cultural roots, and world view). So much of the violence, culture, and religion, stem from this history. A great book on the subject can be found here:
Violence, and worship of violent gods (including human sacrifice) were part of the culture of the Pipil and Mayan people.
Violence, oppression, and war were part of the Spanish Conquest in 1524/5. The Spaniards also brought a whole new violence, oppression, culture of infidelity, and Catholicism (from Spain, who had blocked the Reformation - think Martin Luther), and they kept the Bible and Mass in Latin - Central Americans did not have the Bible in Spanish until 1960!! And even then, were not encouraged to read it! And even now, we see examples all the time, in our community of people not understanding the Bibles that they do have (think old King James). Two examples are: 1. One youth memorized a scripture, and when I asked him what it meant, he thought it was about an animal coming down from the mountains, when it was about lifting our eyes up to God, who brings us help. 2. recently a pastor was talking about John 15, but didn't know what the word, pámpano meant, so his sermon had nothing to do with Jesus being the Vine, and us needing to remain in Him to bear fruit.
The Catholicism, was mixed with Animism, and later, during the war, many Catholics "became" Evangelicals, because it was dangerous to be Catholic. But there was little to no discipleship, and even today, generally speaking, Christian/evangelical churches are filled with pastors, leaders, and church goers, who look more like the cultural norm (of infidelity, etc) around them, than the Holy Priesthood of believers described (and commended) in the Bible.
A couple of hundred years after the Spanish Conquest, came the wars [revolutions - during Napoleon’s occupation in Spain)], that brought Independence in [around] 1821.
Then the oppressive Oligarchy rule (of 14 families, who controlled the country’s economy and ran the coffee, sugar cane, and cotton plantations. (from those same families, there are 8 business groups that still run the business and money of the country, mostly decedents of those families - about 2% of the pupation own 60% of the land today)).
Then from 1931-1979 the country went through several military dictatorships (and thousands of indigenous people were slaughtered) …
During the 12-year war, thousands (Wikipedia sites that “hundreds of thousands”) of Salvadorans fled the war, for the USA.
To protect themselves from rival gangs in Los Angeles, the Salvadoran youth created their own gang, “Ms-13”, and then some Salvadorans also joined a Mexican-American gang called “18 street” (formed in LA in the 1960’s).
After the war, the USA began to deport Salvadoran gang members, back to El Salvador (and is continuing to deport to this day). But they were not sent as criminals to a waiting justice system and prison. They were [mostly] sent back to the street. Now the war was over, but all they knew was violence and “territory protection”.
The word, “gang” usually makes one think of drugs, and drug trafficking. Ms-13 & the 18-street gang in El Salvador, have an unknown relationship to drug traffickers. There is definitely a connection with the higher-up members, and those across North America (these same gangs (especially MS-13) extend through the Americas), but for those living in the country, and joining the gangs on a daily basis, the lure has nothing to do with drugs or drug money.
We know several gang members, and we know very few youths who refuse to join, or who try not to, but feel like they have no other choice (boys and girls). What do you do, if your grandmother, mother, uncles, and cousins are all gang members? you may find yourself a member by “default”, or you may be forced into a gang initiation. Once in the gang there are only two ways out:
2. Being born-again, and living in complete integrity and obedience to God’s Word
If you mess up, then you revert to number 1 (death). But even if you are born-again, and “safe” from your own gang, you are not safe from the rival gang.
Out in the country, and certain areas of the nation, it is not safe for Salvadorans from one community/village to travel, even to work or to school, if they have to pass through rival territory, if they have any type of gang affiliation, and even if not, there is no guarantee. Out of 60 grade 9 grads in our community, only between 1-4 will attempt to go to grade 10-12 in the nearby town, because they have to leave their territory.
Observation/Note/run-on-sentence: (for a lot of [most] of the upper class, and growing middle class Salvadorans, aside from seeing the people begging at every stop light, the high walls everywhere, and the crazy traffic - and of course, the newspaper headlines, if you go to work and school, and shop at a local mall, grocery stores, and even Costco (Pricesmart), and Starbucks, you would be (economically, and safety-wise) no different from anyone in any developed city in North America (ok, except for the malls, aside from maybe the West Edmonton Mall, in Alberta, I have never seen malls like they have here, anywhere in my North American travels -they are very "upper class").
Most girls in our community become gang “wives” around the age of 15.
We have regular military and police presence in our community/village, and at times, all of the youth are in hiding, for fear of being executed by the law.
It sounds dangerous. It is very dangerous for them. El Salvador has one of [or has the] highest murder rate (in a non-war-torn country), in the world.
It sounds hopeless. It is hopeless for them. Except for being saved, and having a hope for eternity, there is no hope, and it is a vicious cycle.
It sounds like there should be no tourism in El Salvador. There isn’t any for them. They are stuck in their own territories, feeling oppressed, living in darkness, living in fear, surviving as squatters, and working in a coffee or sugar cane plantation…for generations…
But, El Salvador IS (relatively) safe for tourists. It is safer than being a tourist in Mexico, and people travel there all the time. Tourists are (generally) not a target. As is the case even in LA, or downtown Vancouver, there are certain places where you should not go, especially at night, but there are lots of places where you can explore, hike, walk, shop, eat, surf, zip-line, etc. and be as safe here as in your own hometown (or safer, depending on where your hometown is). El Salvador was voted as one of the top ten countries to visit, by Lonely Planet in 2010 and 2016.
But what about our community, where we know that there is a gang presence? below are two short stories, to explain why we feel safe here:
1. We began visiting this community in November 2008, and began slowly fundraising to buy land for the ministry around that time. We also began building relationship with our neighbours then, working with them, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them, showing God’s love, and sharing when we had provision to share.
In the year 2011, Manuel, who we hired as a property caretaker, went blind. Before that, he had walked everywhere with us; carrying a machete in his ageing hands (72+ yrs). When he went blind, he began to live in fear. He feared for his life, and he feared for ours. One day, Samuel went to pray for a woman who was sick. He received a phone call from Manuel, frantically asking, where he was, which path he took, and cautioning him to come back quickly, another way.
We met together with some fellow missionaries the next day, and prayed with them about the situation: we prayed for wisdom for ourselves, and for peace for Manuel. Two days later, we drove onto the property, to lead a Bible study. When we parked our vehicle, Manuel came out of the house. He explained that, while his eyes don’t work, when he heard our vehicle coming, he also saw it. He saw our vehicle driving towards him, and there were men dressed in white all around it, they were floating flying behind, above, and around it. There were also men, dressed in white, in chariots all around. He asked, what that was, and how it was possible for him to see, when he is blind! Manuel was not yet born-again, and did not even know what an angel was, but God opened his spiritual eyes, to see that we were (and are!) surrounded by angels.
2. In the fall of 2013, our Bible study group began telling Samuel that there were gang members “looking” for us, and wanting [extortion] money. They also said that there was a risk of the children and I being kidnapped and held for ransom. They advised that the children and I should not come to Bible study for a while (which advice we heeded). Samuel continued going, more and more often. If they were “looking” for him, they knew when and where to find him. He felt convicted, and also received advise from a few people who know/work with gangs, that he should not show fear, but should continue working.
After some time, we received communication from the gang leader in our community, he wanted to meet Samuel, in a private place, alone.
Samuel responded, that if he wanted to meet, he could meet on our property, in our office, on Saturday morning.
They did meet. And the gang leader told Samuel that HE had been living in fear because of Samuel He assured him that it was “petty thieves”, and not gang members who were “trying” to extort money, (they were trying to install fear, using the name of the gang). He even wanted their names, and would have assassinated them, if he knew who they were.
The gang leader told Samuel, that he appreciates what we are doing in their community, and said that they have a “code of ethics”, which says they will never extort money from missionaries. He said that they would never even oblige us to “help” them with donations, food, clothing, etc.
He said that the gang knows that we are God’s servants, and that God would avenge us, if they did anything against us. He said that, from his side, we are respected, and protected in that community.
We are working in that community, because it is where God has called us. We are working towards building a sustainable, safe and secure children’s centre there. The 2-meter-high perimeter wall is almost complete. But our security doesn’t come from that wall, from surveillance, security guards, or guns, our security comes first from God, and the army of the Lord that encamps around that wall, and secondly from the relationships that we have been building in that community for 9 years.
When Samuel left to have that meeting with the gang leader, he had been cautioned by several people, even other missionaries, and told that he shouldn’t take God’s protection for granted, or to put God to the test (and by other trusted advisors, to go ahead, in prayer). He didn’t take God's protection for granted, this was not a test for God, but a test for us.
We said good-bye that day, knowing that he could be killed. He was meeting with a dangerous man, who had spent 15 years in prison and who controlled the extortion, and violence that surrounds that area. We didn’t know what the meeting was about, but Samuel knew that he was supposed to meet him, and even shared the Gospel with him. We are prepared to be used for God’s glory, no matter the cost….
But, we feel safe, and we have hosted around 50 missionary teams from Central and North America, and have even walked around the community and shared the Gospel with known gang members (we know that we have also had regular Bible study attendees who are actually gang members). They are a people living in darkness, a people living in oppression, a people needing the Gospel, and the HOPE of Jesus Christ.
And, God has called us here, to “set the lonely in families”, by bringing hope to the hopeless, and leading both spiritual and physical orphans to the Father-heart of God.
The enemy (Satan), is also working hard to “set the lonely into families”, and to “take care of” the fatherless. young children, and teens are lured into the gang with the promise of “family”, then they “protect” their family and territory, at risk of betraying their family, and being executed.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this [present] darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) places.
So, if you are a soldier of Jesus Christ. Put on the full armour of God, stand with us in prayer, intercede for the children, youth, and gangs of El Salvador. And may His Kingdom come, and His will be done, in our community, in El Salvador, and in the world, as it is in Heaven.
* If you read this blog post and found it insightful or helpful in anyway, or if it left you with any questions or comments, then I would love to hear from you. You can leave a comment, share, and also subscribe to this blog, thanks!
And, If you would like to read more about who the Okuruts are: our past, our faith, and our vision for El Salvador, then please take a look at our new book: "Living in the Shadow of Death: From a Child of War to a Soldier of Christ"