SAN SALVADOR- Gang life in the poor Central American country of El Salvador is hard, but for a dozen former members of the feared 18th Street Gang, building a new life outside is no less difficult.
Wilfredo Gomez, 40, joined a gang as an adolescent in Los Angeles, the U.S. city to which his parents emigrated. He said he was enticed by the guns, the girls and the camaraderie of gang life.
He wound up in jail before being deported back to his native country. With few links to El Salvador, he quickly returned to gang life. A 10-year jail sentence for stealing an Uzi submachine gun gave him time to reckon with his choices.
Returning to civil society is arduous in the midst of the government's militarized battle against the "maras," which has led to claims of rights abuses and, according to police, an average daily tally of 16 dead.
Former gang members often struggle to find lodging and work, and may be rejected by their families.
For Gomez and 12 other ex-gangsters, the Eben-Ezer evangelical church in the gang-ridden neighborhood of Dina in San Salvador, the capital, has been a lifeline, offering food, accommodations, and a spiritual second chance.
"I've only had losses being part of the gang," Gomez said. "I haven't won anything. I lost my youth, which was spent in jail. I lost my family due to my bad decisions. I lost my home, my woman, my son, and I lost the best years of my life due to a pointless ideology."
Gomez now runs a bakery that employs 10 other former gang members.
"Now, my fun, my enjoyment, is to see them smile, to have dreams," Gomez said. "They say they're going to open a bigger bakery, and that one day we'll have our own store and compete against Pizza Hut."
Rejected by a society weary of violence, they nonetheless struggle to eradicate the stain of gang life.
In October, police went to the bakery and stripped the employees to expose their gang tattoos. They were arrested on suspicion of illicit association, a crime that carries a 5-year sentence. A week later, they were released without charges.
Once known as "The Shadow," Raul Valladares, 34, is undergoing a painful process to remove tattoos from his face and arms. He has received death threats from his former gang associates because removing gang insignia is punishable by death.
"It's definitely cost me a lot to leave the gang," he said. "But I'm fighting to keep going."