Two Ways Out: Christianity, Security, and Mara Salvatrucha

Kevin Lewis O'Neill, Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto

Research Grant, 2010, 2012

This project, based on fieldwork in Guatemala, tracked the growing world of transnational street gangs from the perspective of gang ministry. These criminal organizations originated among Central American immigrants in Los Angeles, California, during the gang wars of the 1980s. Since then, United States deportation policies have transported (and, in turn, expanded) these gangs back to Central America, with one of the strongest networks forming in postwar Guatemala. Tens of thousands of men and women now smuggle drugs, participate in human trafficking, and control prison systems.

Religion is a social fact deeply bound to the practice and to the construction of security.

While much research focuses on why young men and women join these gangs, this project looked instead at one of the only ways out: Christian conversion. This curious loophole in gang membership raised a guiding research question: How and to what extent does gang ministry exemplify Christianity’s growing entanglement with the geopolitics of Central American security? The answer to this question proved significant, with an array of Christian-inflected research sites contributing to efforts at Central American security. These included prison chaplaincy programs that target active gang members as well as back-to-work programs for ex–gang members. One overall observation proved critical. A range of scholars (in several disciplines) understand religion and security as distinct: religion as a threat to security or religion as a solution to insecurity. Yet, my fieldwork makes it clear that religion, observed here through various manifestations of Christianity, is neither the enemy nor the antidote. Rather, religion is a social fact deeply bound to the practice and to the construction of security, to the very idea of what it means to be secure.

  1. 2015. Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala. University of California Press.

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