As the sound of gunshots grew closer, Janderson Viera knew that the rival gang that had taken over his neighborhood was coming for him.

Running to his bedroom, he called the only lifeline he had left: the Rev. Arnaldo Barros.

“I want to convert,” he said.

As gang wars drive Brazil’s homicide rate to historic highs, evangelical pastors — long revered in the nation’s slums and prisons — have come up with a new way to protect members looking for a way out.

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the business alive is to convert to Christianity. So Barros, a televangelist popular here in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient articles of faith using the most modern of tools: He records the conversion on his smartphone and posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival gangs and their own.

Gang leaders and law enforcement officials say it works.

“We aren’t going to go against the will of God,” a local leader of the powerful Comando Vermelho, the gang that was pursuing Viera, told The Washington Post. “God comes first, above everything.”

“It’s become a nonviolent escape route,” agreed Lucas Gomes, the head of prisons here in Acre state. “A way to publicize, justify and explain the exit.”

Barros, meanwhile, keeps close watch on each new Christian to make sure the conversion sticks.

If it doesn’t, he lets the gangs know.

Gang violence has made Brazil one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America — killings nationwide reached a record 64,000 in 2017, and the death toll remains high.

The carnage, and the sense that the government wasn’t doing enough to stop it, helped right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro get elected as president last year. The former military officer campaigned on promises to loosen gun ownership laws for private citizens and to give police more authority to shoot suspects.

That pitch resonated in Acre, where Bolsonaro won 77 percent of the vote, more than in any other state. The sparsely populated western state, wedged between Peru and Bolivia, is so often neglected by the federal government that Brazilians joke it doesn’t exist. But for the narcotrafficking gangs battling for control of Brazil’s profitable cocaine route, it has become hotly disputed turf.

The carnage, and the sense that the government wasn’t doing enough to stop it, helped right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro get elected as president last year. The former military officer campaigned on promises to loosen gun ownership laws for private citizens and to give police more authority to shoot suspects.

That pitch resonated in Acre, where Bolsonaro won 77 percent of the vote, more than in any other state. The sparsely populated western state, wedged between Peru and Bolivia, is so often neglected by the federal government that Brazilians joke it doesn’t exist. But for the narcotrafficking gangs battling for control of Brazil’s profitable cocaine route, it has become hotly disputed turf.

The gang wars have transformed sleepy Rio Branco, a ­jungle-covered town of ramshackle houses and polluted canals, into one of Brazil’s most violent cities. The homicide rate in Acre’s capital rose to 64 per 100,000 in 2017, double that of the rest of the country.

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