Encarni Pindado

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Gang leaders in El Salvador have a message for the martyred priest they call "Saint Romero": We're sorry, forgive our sins.

In a rare joint communique penned by the Salvatrucha (MS-13), the Pandilla 18, the Mao-Mao and the Mirada Locos 13, gang leaders of all ink markings say they want to give the gift of peace to former Archbishop Oscar Romero on his homestretch to sainthood, which is being celebrated with his beatification this weekend in San Salvador.

Gang graffiti and Romero graffiti lines the city streets of San Salvador (photo/ Encarni Pindado)
Encarni Pindado

So far, so bad. Since the gangs' communique was released on April 23, El Salvador has experienced its most violent month on record. More than 400 Salvadorans have been murdered in the first three weeks of May, and the average daily death toll jumped to 28 this week. The gangs blame the government and the government blames the gangs.

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One thing seems certain: El Salvador's devotion to "Saint Romero of America" has not translated into a pious adherence to his preachings of peace.

"What lesson has El Salvador learned from Monseñor Romero? Nothing. El Salvador didn't learn anything from Monseñor Romero, you understand?" a Pandilla 18 gang leader who we'll call "Santiago" told Fusion an exclusive interview.

'El Sirra,' one of the top leaders of the MS-13 (Salvatrucha) leads a prayer inside prison (photo/ courtesy of Paolo Luers)

Father Romero, an outspoken critic of El Salvador’s former military regime and a bold champion of the poor, was gunned down by a right-wing death squad while saying mass on March 24, 1980. His memory is still honored across Latin America, and his image has been adopted by El Salvador's incarcerated gang population, which tags prison walls with the bishop's likeness.

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If the former archbishop returned from heaven today, he'd be shocked to find the country in a similar condition to how he left it 35 years ago, on the eve of the country's brutal 12-year civil war, Santiago says.

'Santiago' shows off his Pandilla 18 gang tats. He refused to have his face photographed or use his real name in print (photo/ Tim Rogers)

"We come from the same communities, the same places that he visited. Places whose realities he wanted to change," Santiago said, lighting another cigarette. "And let me tell monseñor that the reality hasn't changed much. It's still the same. They are still poor communities. Marginalized. Unprotected. Stigmatized. And today perhaps stigmatized even more because of us, the gangs.

"I wish that monseñor could see that gangs now exist in these communities, because I think he would have come into the communities and I think that he would have said mass and I think he would have looked us in the eyes and told us what he thinks of us, the bad things we are doing, and we would have listened to him, you understand?

"We wish there were people like him, with that level of bravery, to enter the communities and not just view us as a bastion of gangsters and criminals and people on the margin of the law, but look at us like any other person, you understand?

"View us as communities where people live, where there are family units, where there are aspirations, where there are children, where there is innocence, where there is evil, where there is violence, where there is human need, where there is a lack of basic services, where there is a total abandonment by the state.

"These are the communities that Monseñor saw back then, and they remain abandoned by the state today because now the excuse is that we (the gangs) are there, which is an excuse to not invest what they need to invest

'Santiago' joined the Pandilla 18 when he was 17. Now he's 32 (photo/ Tim Rogers)

"We view the beatification of monseñor as a golden opportunity for El Salvador. And that's why we've called on society, on the Church, and the international community. Our message is:  here we are, as members of a gang, looking for a way to integrate ourselves into a life that is productive and social.

"We want to integrate into the education system, into the workforce, to be productive, to earn a living for our families. In the name of Monseñor Romero, we are here. We want an opportunity.

"We want someone to follow in the footsteps of (Romero) and visit the communities and really learn what the needs are, learn the desires of the people and the goodwill of the gangs to enter into a process of peace and tranquility in all the communities, barrios and municipalities of El Salvador. We've been saying this for four years.

"Maybe the canonization of monseñor will bring out the good people, those who today can understand the message of Romero. Maybe all those who have identified with monseñor can come forward and form a bloc where we can revindicate our errors. Because I am willing to do that. How? I don't know. But I am willing to do it. To come forward and accept my guilt, own my mistakes and make amends for my mistakes.

"But they have to tell me: you make good for your sins, and you will get this opportunity, right? We are people who keep our word, we are men, we are gentlemen, and we want an opportunity. How? I don't know. What opportunity? I don't know.

"But as a society, these opportunities need to be created. They need to be created because we can't be thinking that we are going to wipe out 70,000 people who belong to gangs. What are they saying? What are they proposing? They want to turn us into soap? Huh?! You understand me? What are they saying? They want to build concentration camps and kill us and boil us and turn us into soap? No, man, you have to look for an AL-TER-NA-TIVE!"

"I hope that now, with all my faith in God, that monseñor can finally start to illuminate these people who have learned nothing to start listening to his message of a man who fought tirelessly for the poor, for the unprotected. It's time to put that into practice. To start to make it real today. They need to start learning from him now, because they didn't learn anything back then."