Williams (former gang member), 37 years of age from El Salvador

Williams is a retired gang member who, alongside his younger brother, established the MS13 gang in the Distrito Italia, a marginalised area in the Apopa district of San Salvador where he moved when he was still very young.

He grew up as part of a large family consisting of his parents and 5 brothers, all living under the same roof in a room of four by five meters.

His mum was a hard working woman. She would wake up very early in the morning, leave the house at 6am and get back from work at 2 am. This monotonous life would repeat itself over and over again. 

Williams recalls a tough episode when his dad, who was a soldier at the time, came home from work once, totally sad and angry –he had been sacked from his job; from then on his life would take a different course.

Due to the financial constraints that the family had fallen into, his dad started drinking alcohol compulsively to try and heal the pain and forget about his problems. Williams learned from his dad’s behaviour and decided to follow in his steps at a very early age. Between 6 and 7 years old he started sniffing glue and smoking cigarettes. At 8 he continued sniffing glue and started smoking weed.

His dad would try to set an example by applying the same harsh punishments he had once been taught in the army but it was useless as Williams had already understood what life was about from the toxic environment he had learned to grow up in. In the late 80’s his life was basically about taking drugs and committing all sorts of petty crimes.

Suddenly, Williams’ life took a critical turn in the 90’s. He joined the MS13, one of the two main gangs that have controlled most of the territory in the country since the early 90’s.  He recalls his life as a nightmare throughout all this.

He explains that when Salvadorians were deported from the United States, 

many of them were already gang members from the same group. They were the ones that convinced Williams to join the gang. Before officially joining them he was submitted to a brutal kicking that lasted 3 minutes altogether, although to him it was interminable. 

When he turned 16, he and his family were forced to move by the government to another part of the city, the Distrito Italia, where he has lived ever since. At the beginning, there were no gangs in that area. In fact, it was he and his younger brother who established the gang in that part of the city.

In the mid 90’s his older brother, who Williams admired so much for being a respected delinquent, was killed; this affected him enormously. To him he was a role model. The same day his brother was being veiled, Williams was arrested by the police under grievous bodily harm charges and was subsequently sentenced to 3 years in prison, still as a young kid.

At that point he felt even more attached to the gang. He slowly managed to scale the ladder inside the structure and built a much stronger reputation, hence more respect was given to him by his fellow gang members.

Williams used to believe that Satan had given him all he had and that God simply did not exist to him.

At the end of the 90’s he was released from prison as an adult. As a way out of his problems he followed again in his dad’s footsteps, taking drugs and what not. Williams was so exhausted by the drug habit that the gang had lost its respect for him; his gang saw him as rubbish that had to be exterminated completely.

A few months after his release, he ended up in prison again. This time he had been sentenced for carrying a grenade that he was planning to use against the enemy gang who were travelling on public transport. In 1999 he received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment. 

His life in prison was far worse as this time he had been housed in civilian prison unit. This meant that he had no partners around him who could defend him. This situation made it possible for other prisoners to torture him all the time. Such inmates hated gang members but they nurtured a special repulsion towards members of the MS13. After a few days in prison they warned Williams that his last day on Earth would be December 31st of that year.

One of his brothers would send him letters inviting him to believe in Christ but Williams would simply destroy them.

Time passed and the painful kicking carried on. He was sure that his final day would soon arrive; it was a long and painful wait.

December 1999 arrived and he was counting the days. He kept reflecting on his life, on the negative things he had done, he thought about his wife and daughter all the time to try and find peace but it was obvious that his life would soon come to an end. On December 31st he waited and waited for the inmates to turn up to kill him but they never did.

They had got drunk the night before and forgot to carry out the promised job. This gave him a second chance of life…

February 2000 arrived and his name was called to see the judge once again.

He presumed that one more crime would be added on to the extensive list he already had. This would increase his time in prison.

The judge started to read out all the crimes he was being charged with, such as possession and manufacture of weapons as well as the export of such weapons to the United States and Iraq. For a minute he closed his eyes and looked down in resignation. He immediately took his Mum’s hand and awaited the worst.

The judge read his name and a few seconds later absolved him of all crimes. He then ordered his immediate release. Williams could not believe it!! He would be free again.

Soon after his release he looked for ways of taking revenge on his own gang who never took care of him and left him alone to die at the hands of other prisoners. 

Suddenly, he says, God called for his attention and asked him to meditate on everything he had done wrong. God invited him to open his eyes and realise that he had been given another opportunity to live!!

His parents never approved of his life as a gang member though they slowly got used to his lifestyle.

He never felt any love from his Dad who used to call him names and would tell him that he was an unwanted son, that he meant rubbish to him. That caused a huge impact on Williams and determined the way he would live his life. He recalls never receiving a hug or a kiss from his parents but when he meditates on that now, it reminds him to give his own daughter hugs and kisses every day.

During Williams’ life as a gang member he remembers how in the mornings he would smile but at night he would cry interminably. He wondered why if God was love why it was that He did not love him.

He perceives that being a young person today is pretty tough. He has met many young kids in his area that he never thought would turn into gang members — children who have received love and attention, children who have had it all but still make the decision to join the gang due to the hatred they have of the government.

Finally, Williams confesses to me that when he was an active gang member he used to understand women as sexual objects; they would be there within reach, simply to serve men’s sexual desires. Now that he has matured, he sees women as the most beautiful creation that God has ever created…

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