Having worked with gang members myself, I have seen firsthand how poverty, lack of education, and broken families can impact the lives of young people. I have also witnessed the destructive consequences of gang violence, which only further exacerbates the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. That's why I believe that it was necessary for the government to take strong action against the gangs, and I fully supported President Bukele's efforts to do so.
As a missionary living in El Salvador, my primary focus was working with young people in the MS13 and Calle 18 gangs. My goal was to reach them with the love of Jesus Christ—that they might surrender to Christ and to help them learn to live a productive, righteous life. Each week, I walked the streets of their neighborhoods, approaching gang members with love and respect. Many of them were stunned that I was speaking to them, as they were used to being feared and hated. But I did not fear them; I loved them and told them that Jesus loves them. Many allowed me to spend time with them, sitting with me and listening to the Bible’s message of hope, redemption, and restoration.
When the government began its crackdown on gang members, I was torn. On the one hand, I understood the need to address the violent troubles of gang violence. Justice indeed needed to be executed. On the other hand, I saw firsthand the injustices that were being committed against innocent people too. Countless people were arrested without cause, based solely on their age or appearance or the whims of the soldiers who were detaining them. Many were beaten or harassed by soldiers without any recourse. I knew of individuals who were falsely accused and arrested, including my friend (in the picture) who has been in prison for a year now.
Speaking out was risky. President Bukele had made it clear that anyone who gave aid to gang members would be arrested and charged with association. The embassy warned me in a private meeting that I could be arrested and detained if I continued living in El Salvador, and that they would not be able to help get me out. In addition, a Salvadoran high ranking official on a phone call told me he would not be able to assist me if I was arrested.
Despite these overwhelming risks, I sought guidance and fervently prayed of what I should do. God gave me a deep sense of peace and affirmation that I should remain in the nation to keep ministering in the work of God. However, as I continued to serve Salvadorans, I was witness to many human rights violations that I could no longer remain silent about.
Now, I believe it is time to speak up publicly. It is important to acknowledge the success of President Bukele's needful campaign against gang violence, but at the same time we cannot ignore the injustices that have been occurring. Innocent people have been arrested and detained without cause, and their human rights have been violated. As a servant of God and a concerned human, I humbly implore President Bukele to investigate and rectify these injustices, and to ensure that the rights of all Salvadorans are respected.
These human rights violations not only go against our moral values but also undermine the government's efforts to curb violence and promote public safety. Treating young people in marginalized communities as potential criminals risks further marginalization and radicalization, and may thwart future positive messages and interventions.
To conclude, it is of utmost importance to protect the rights of innocent individuals and prevent any unfair targeting. I am grateful for God’s great grace and favor to have had the opportunity to work with young people in gangs. In my view, preaching Christ, exhibiting love and respect to those who are often ostracized and feared is the key to bringing about sustainable peaceful change. While justice absolutely is important, restoration is also possible. Thus, my prayer is that every Salvadoran, irrespective of their background or affiliation, should receive dignified and respectful treatment, and that we collaborate to construct a better future for El Salvador. Only when we uphold the rights of every Salvadoran can we forge a safer and more equitable society for the generations to come.