The Reckless Will: Prison Chaplaincy and the Problem of Mara Salvatrucha
The phone call was rushed, near frantic. From inside one of Guatemala’s maximum security prisons, a known gang leader pleaded with Pastor Morales via cell phone to do something: to contact the press, to notify a human rights office, to intervene. A member of the transnational gang circuit known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, this prisoner (whom I will call Gustavo) explained to Pastor Morales that he was being transferred to El Pavoncito — a different maximum security prison that houses members of Barrio Dieciocho, or the 18th Street Gang. These two gangs, MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, each boast tens of thousands of members throughout the Americas, from Calgary to Quito. Many are former soldiers, with extensive combat experience in some of Central America’s longest and bloodiest civil wars. In Guatemala, they smuggle drugs, participate in human trafficking, and control prison systems, all while state officials offer failed responses to their growing threat. More immediate to Gustavo’s phone call, the two gangs are also rivals — for turf, for contracts, for respect. Pastor Morales, a Pentecostal minister and part-time prison chaplain, understood immediately the stakes of Gustavo’s transfer. As many would comment later, such a move from one prison population to another “es igual a la pena de muerte” (is the same as a death sentence).
Although Pastor Morales called whoever would listen, bringing both a municipal judge and Gustavo’s mother to the prison gates, Gustavo entered El Pavoncito a little before 4:00 a.m. with four other members of MS-13. Prison officials placed these five men into a “secure” cell for their own protection, but their presence in the general prison population sparked a riot that culminated around 6:30 a.m. At this early hour, a mob of prisoners broke into Gustavo’s cell, ripping the door off its hinges. They dragged him and his fellow MS-13 members into the prison yard and, one by one, decapitated them.1 With night turning to day, with sunlight revealing what only darkness could permit, Gustavo’s head sat on a pike while the prisoners set his body on fire. Later, during an interview, only days after images of Gustavo’s severed head circled the World Wide Web, the director of Guatemala’s central morgue reflected aloud to me: “It’s not like scissors cutting through paper, you know. Decapitation is tedious work [trabajo tedioso], a sweaty kind of labor [laborioso].” For effect, the director ran his fingers across his own cervical vertebrae, demonstrating and appreciating the physicality of it all.
In contrast to such a clinical appraisal, Pastor Morales focused, perhaps predictably, not on Gustavo’s broken body but on his soul. He mourned Gustavo as an unfinished work, noting that he, the pastor, knew “what an incredible thing was happening in Gustavo’s heart.” With the cadence of a eulogy, Pastor Morales explained: “On the outside he was incredibly intimidating, with... scars from stab wounds and bullets. On the inside, I came to love [Gustavo], who became my friend.... In private, away from the piercing eyes of his other homies, it was easy to note his softening heart. During a Bible study, Gustavo turned to me to whisper: ‘It’s great to feel such a deep presence of the Lord here with the homies today.’ ” Amid such violent corporeality, Pastor Morales’s grief remained trained on Gustavo’s heart, his softening inner world, his ability to feel the Lord’s presence, in the words of Gustavo, deeply.
This article lingers on the distance between these two responses, between the director’s morbid disbelief and the pastor’s ministerial disquiet, to ask how MS-13 has become a problem for Guatemala. By problem I mean not whether MS-13 is or is not a problem but how MS-13 has come to be understood as problematic — how this transnational gang circuit, per Michel Foucault (1988: 257), has “enter[ed] into the play of the true and false” and how such play “constitutes [MS-13] as an object for thought” (see also Castel 1994). This is a historical, ethnographic question attuned to an ever-shifting relationship among sovereignty, discipline, and governance in but also beyond postwar Guatemala (Foucault 2007:23); to how authorities define certain persons as problematic; and to the criteria by which certain forms of conduct come to be seen as problematic — as ultimately justifying not just “who may live and who must die” (Mbembe 2003: 11) but also how it is best to live.
To focus on the problematization of MS-13 begins, in many ways, with an appreciation for the authority that Pastor Morales wields — an expertise that consistently shouts over (and sometimes down) other possible avenues by which MS-13 could be understood as problematic: for example, the historical, the political, and the economic. Instead of these alternative constructions, charismatic and Pentecostal pastors, such as Morales, make MS-13 into a Christian problem with a Christian solution — for not only men and women of faith in Guatemala but also liberal, democratic, and ostensibly secular security officials throughout the Americas. This faithful framing takes place through the language and practice of what has come to be understood as “gang ministry.” Gang ministry as an emerging genre of pastoral care has become increasingly significant because of a curious loophole in gang membership. While there are a number of reasons that young men and women find themselves ritualistically “beaten into” or “sexed into” the ranks, only two options are available to those who wish to leave MS-13, a group to which they have otherwise pledged their lives.2 There are only two ways out. One is death. The other is Christian conversion (CCM 2006).3 Now courted by state officials to augment government attempts at security, charismatic and Pentecostal ministers in Guatemala, El Salvador, and southern California (to name only a few locales) work the streets as well as the confessional to open the hearts of gang members to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
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- There is some disagreement over whether members of the 18th Street Gang participated in the killing of these prisoners. The media understand this prison riot as the result of gang warfare. See, e.g., Acuña 2008;Carroll 2008;González and Del Cid 2008; and Los Angeles Times 2008. Yet many who are familiar with the prison system contend that members of the 18th Street Gang played only a minor part in the beheadings.
- To become a member of MS-13, recruits are beaten for thirteen seconds by a group of active MS-13 members. Alternatively, women can be either beaten or “sexed” into MS-13.
- Death and conversion are the only two ways out of MS-13. In some cliques, however, pregnancy can create a space to negotiate a qualified disaffiliation from MS-13.