Imagine thousands of tattooed prisoners, heads shaved, kneeling low, with heavily armed guards standing over them ready. Now picture a prison built to hold a whopping 40,000 prisoners.[1] Inmates are crammed in together – mainly from two rival gangs – Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.

Violent maras (street gangs) have contributed to El Salvador[2], a small, densely-populated, highly-industrialised country, having one of the world’s highest murder rates. “La vida por las maras” or “[the] Life for the gang” is a common phrase. Inter-gang warfare has led to decades of terror, bloodshed, and a new movement of people seeking sanctuary elsewhere, including the UK.[3] Approximately 2 million Salvadorans now live abroad.

To add to the misery caused by the maras, El Salvador has suffered from chronic political and economic instability with coups, revolts, and a succession of authoritarian rulers. The country’s indigo, cotton, coffee, and sugar cane industries have benefited a privileged few. A bitter civil war broke out in the 1980s, stoked by massive inequality between the majority of the population and the small, wealthy elite. Tragically, around 70,000 people lost their lives.[4] A UN-brokered peace agreement ended the civil war in 1992, ushering in political reforms, but the country still suffers from a legacy of violence and division.

I first got interested in El Salvador because of a gregarious lady who stumbled across our church-based English conversational classes in Manchester: “I live in the capital San Salvador with my parents, brother, sister,” she describes in faltering yet understandable English. “…Big problem with gangsters,” she adds, explaining one of the motivations of leaving everything to come to England in 2019.

This is a lady who has suffered loss. “Living in England is very hard especially for language,” she continues. “I speak nothing English.” Unfortunately, for many people such as my learner, there are often long waiting lists for government-funded English language classes at local colleges and councils.

This frustrating situation, however, presents a tremendous opportunity for the UK church to meet needs and witness through the provision of church-based English classes: “I’m going to the church”, my learner continues. “It’s very amazing. They help everyone in the church…For me it’s very, very good they are helping me the church…because to take a space in the college because all the time it is busy, waiting for English class for three years.” Imagine all the good a church can do in the life of an individual and her family over three years. When my learner’s mother passed away unexpectantly in El Salvador, we were able to listen and be present with her as she grappled with the heartache of being far away and not being ‘able to do anything.’

Meanwhile back in El Salvador, the domestically popular “state of emergency” declared by President Bukele, has brought about a dramatic drop in recorded murders since taking office in 2019.[5] Salvadorans stress this change, especially in neighbourhoods controlled by gangs that intimidated people with the motto: “See, hear, shut up”.

Cue ‘Cecot’, El Salvador’s mega-prison, where thousands of gang members are incarcerated, often based upon flimsy spoken accusation or suspicious tattoos. Authorities have stated that they do not expect prisoners to ever be released.

The prison “is a concrete and steel pit where there is a perverse calculation to dispose of people without formally applying the death penalty”, Miguel Sarre, a former member of the United Nations Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, told the BBC. Relatives of prisoners know little to nothing about their loved ones inside.

For ordinary people caught in the middle, the aggression and tension, not to mention lack of opportunities, must be deflating, exhausting, unbearable. As more people leave, keep an eye out for Salvadorans amongst the Latinas and Latinos we will meet on these shores.

May we consider how to offer international people the blessing, safety, and shalom of church-based English conversational classes. As my Salvadoran learner reminds us: “I am so happy to go to the church for English class…here it’s very important to speak the language to get a better job. I am very grateful to the church.”

As we allow what we have read about El Salvador to sink in our hearts, may we, “See, hear, and speak out” about the country and its people before the Lord and those around us. With a reverse-Cecot response, may we be poised to share the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). Rather than committing to “La vida por las maras”, may countless Salvadorans choose to dedicate their lives to Christ.


References and Further Reading

Country Profile: (last accessed Nov 23)

Article: “El Salvador’s secretive mega-jail” (last accessed Nov 23)

Article: “Thousands of tattooed inmates pictured in El Salvador mega-prison” (last accessed Nov 23)

Article on media crackdown: (last accessed Nov 23)

Some history: (last accessed Nov 23)

Map credit: (last accessed Nov 23)

ESOL class in Manchester. Photo credit: (last accessed Nov 23)


About the Writer: Daniel Whetham is the 2:19 ‘Developer’ for Greater Manchester. Daniel researches trends in movements of International people to and within the UK in order to consider how best to pray, prepare, and respond with English language provision in the love of Christ.

[1] At capacity, this equates to 0.58 square metres per person. The Red Cross recommends 3.4sq m per prisoner in a shared cell as an international standard.

[2] In the early 16th century, the Spanish Empire represented by Pedro de Alvarado named the area for Jesus Christ – El Salvador (“The Savior”)

[3] 1980 – Archbishop of San Salvador and human rights campaigner Oscar Romero was assassinated.

[4] Up to 75,000 people are estimated by the UN to have died in the violence between army-backed right-wing death squads and left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels.

[5] In a CID Gallup poll of 1,200 citizens in January, 92% of those polled said they had a “favourable opinion” of their leader.