Gang members In Brazil Escape Death By Turning To Jesus Christ

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

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 ’s rate to highs, evangelical pastors — revered in the nation’s slums and — have come up with a way to protect members looking for a way out.

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the alive is to convert to . So Barros, a televangelist in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient of using the most of : He records the conversion on his and posts the videos on , and . The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival and their own.

Gang leaders and enforcement officials say it works.

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

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

Barros, meanwhile, keeps close 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 in — killings nationwide reached a record 64,000 in 2017, and the toll remains high.

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

That pitch resonated in Acre, where Bolsonaro won 77 percent of the vote, more than in any state. The sparsely populated western state, wedged between and , is so often neglected by the that Brazilians it doesn’t exist. But for the narcotrafficking gangs battling for control of Brazil’s 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 . 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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