Evangelicals, a growing force in Argentine prisons


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ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) – The loud noise of an iron door opening marks Jorge Anguilante’s release from Pinero prison every Saturday. He returns home for 24 hours to minister in a small evangelical church he founded in a garage in Argentina’s most violent city.

Before he walks through the door, the guards remove the handcuffs from “Tachuela” – Spanish for “Tack”, as he was known in the criminal world. In silence, they stare at the hired killer turned pastor who greets them with a single word: “Blessings”.

The beefy six-foot-tall man whose tattoos are remnants of another time in his life – when he said he was killing – must return at 8 a.m. morning in a cell block known to inmates as “the church.”

His story, that of a convicted murderer embracing an evangelical faith behind bars, is common in the prisons of Argentina’s province of Santa Fe and its capital Rosario. Many here started selling drugs as a teenager and found themselves stuck in a spiral of violence that led some to their graves and others to overcrowded prisons divided between two forces: the drug lords and the preachers.

Over the past 20 years, Argentine prison authorities have encouraged, to one extent or another, the creation of units run effectively by evangelical inmates – sometimes granting them some additional special privileges, such as more time in the air. costs.


The cell blocks look a lot like the rest of the prison – clean and painted in pastel, light blue, or green colors. They have kitchens, televisions, and audio equipment – here used for prayer services.

But they are safer and quieter than regular units.

Breaking the rules prohibiting fights, smoking, alcohol or drug use can result in an inmate being returned to normal prison.

“We are bringing peace to the prisons. There has never been a riot within the evangelical cells. And it’s better for the authorities, ”said Reverend David Sensini of the Church of Redil de Cristo de Rosario.

Access is controlled by both prison officials and cell block leaders who function much like pastors – and wary of gang infiltration attempts.

“It happened several times that a detainee asked to go to the evangelical pavilion to try to take it back. We have to keep a permanent check on who comes in, ”said Eric Gallardo, one of the people in charge of Pinero prison.

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Rosario is best known as a great agricultural port, the birthplace of revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and a talent factory for football players, including Lionel Messi. But the city of some 1.3 million people also has high levels of poverty and crime. Violence between gangs seeking to control land and drug markets has helped fill its prisons.

“Eighty percent of crimes in Rosario are perpetrated by young contract killers who provide services to drug gangs, whose bosses are jailed and keep control of criminal cases from jails,” said Matías Edery, Attorney for the Organized Crime Unit in Santa. province of Fé.

Anguillante says his life as a hitman is behind him; The word of God, he said, transformed him into “a new man.”

In 2014, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the murder of 24-year-old Jesús Trigo, who he shot in the face. Anguillante says that face haunts him at night, and he tries to chase the memory away by praying in his small prison cell.

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About 40% of the estimated 6,900 inmates in the province of Santa Fe live in evangelical cell blocks, said Walter Gálvez, Santa Fe’s undersecretary for prison affairs, who is also a Pentecostal.

As in other Latin American countries, the spread of the evangelical faith in Argentina has taken root especially in “the most vulnerable sectors, including prisoners,” said Verónica Giménez, researcher at the National Research Council science and technology from Argentina.

In Pope Francis’ home country, the Roman Catholic Church is still the dominant religion. But a council survey found that the percentage of Argentine Catholics rose from 76.5% to 62.9% between 2008 and 2019, while the share of evangelicals rose from 9% to 15.3%.

“This increase in the number of worshipers has taken place even more in prisons,” said Gálvez.

Gimenez, the researcher, said this is echoing in other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, where the huge Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has 14,000 people working with prisoners.

The growth is remarkable in a country where Catholics had a virtual monopoly on prison chapels until a few decades ago.

“There are still Catholic chapels inside the prisons but their priests are almost without work to do,” said Leonardo Andre, director of Coronda prison, about 80 kilometers north of Rosario.

Catholic priest Fabian Belay, who heads the Pastoral Care for Drug Addiction, said priests are indeed active, but use “different methods” than the strategy of blocking cells.

“We do not agree with the invention of religious cells because they create ghettos inside prisons,” he said. “We are betting on integration and not on religious segregation.”

Deacon Raul Valenti, who has worked in Catholic pastoral care for three decades, said: “Evangelicals do their work in religious cells, while we do it in others, the so-called hell.

He insisted that they are not in conflict: “We just have different points of view. We often share religious activities inside the prison.”

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The congregations Puerta del Cielo (“The door to heaven”) and Redil de Cristo (“The sheepfold of Christ”) are among those which exert a strong influence in the prisons of Santa Fe. They began to evangelize the inmates at the end 1980s and today have more than 120 pastors working inside prisons.

During a recent service at Redil de Cristo Church in Rosario, Reverend David Sensini asked those who had been imprisoned to identify themselves. About a third of the room raised their hands. They then closed their eyes and bowed their heads in prayer.

Víctor Pereyra, who wore a black suit and tie, served his sentence in Pinero prison. Today, he owns a fresh produce store and also performs maintenance work.

“I don’t want to go back (to jail). Today I have a family to take care of, ”he said.

Pop-style hymns blared from speakers as three television cameras recorded the ceremony for fellow worshipers watching at home via a YouTube channel.

“No one else is going to jail. Neither your children nor your grandchildren,” the pastor shouted to the crowd. “Change is possible!”

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Those who refuse to change are soon kicked out of evangelical cells, said Rubén Muñoz, a 54-year-old pastor in Puerta del Cielo who has served two years in prison for theft.

Although there are allegations that unrepentant drug bosses bribed the cells, Eduardo Rivello, the congregation’s senior pastor, has denied this.

But he acknowledged that several members of the Los Monos gang have lived in these units and said some of those who come are looking for protection rather than the desire to follow their faith. “We are working with everyone,” he said, adding that he also lives under constant threat.

“The drug traffickers want to take over the evangelical units because for them it is a business,” he said. “From there, crimes can be ordered and drugs sold. “

Each evangelical unit in Pinero is headed by 10 inmates who have around 15 assistants for the 190 inmates. “They are responsible for controlling everything and keeping the peace,” Gallardo said.

“We are not using knives, but the Bible to take control of a cell block,” said Pentecostal pastor Sergio Prada. Prisoners who want to be allowed in, he said, must obey the rules of conduct, including praying three times a day, giving up any addictions and fighting.

While leading a recent meeting for 90 prisoners in an evangelical unit in Pinero, Prada told them to put their old criminal lives behind.

“This old man must die!” he cried, referring to their previous identities.

Hearing these words, Anguilante closed her eyes and cried. He would later say that he has already “buried” his old self, the one who murdered and was imprisoned for seven years.

“Not everyone can, but you have to try,” he said.

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In the Penal Unit n ° 1 of Coronda, the day in the evangelical units begins and ends with prayer.

One of those praying is Juan Roberto Chávez, who has been imprisoned for 16 years in various prisons in Argentina and has served the last eight years in Coronda. “I hated the world,” he said. “I wanted to destroy it.” He recalled that he lived mainly locked in disciplinary cells.

“The children who arrived would turn into monsters” in prison, Chávez said. He tried and failed to escape. Desperate, he sewed his mouth shut and went on a hunger strike.

“Then I had tuberculosis. I was dying, “he said.” I hit rock bottom and had an epiphany.

Recently, Chávez kissed José Pedro Muñoz, 37, who expected to be paroled after serving an 18-year sentence.

“Now you have to be stronger than ever,” Chavez told him.

Muñoz was nervous; the wait for the exit seems interminable. He was a hitman for the Los Monos gang and his body is a testament to Rosario’s war on drugs. Scars from two gunshots mark his chest. Another 9mm bullet passed through his abdomen.

“I set fire to bunkers (armored places where cocaine is sold) with people inside. We did it to drive out the (rival) drug dealers, ”he said.

But soon came bad news. A guard arrived and told him that he would remain in jail because other charges had been brought against him.

A few minutes later, he joined other prisoners in prayer.

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The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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