Argentine authorities are encouraged by the change they see from the influence of evangelical programs that are quelling violence and crime in correctional facilities.
According to an article by German De Los Santos and Rodrigo Abd in the Associated Press, a program implemented inside prisons in Argentina’s Santa Fe province is having positive results. There, some 40 percent of roughly 6,900 prisoners live in “evangelical cellblocks.”
In Rosario, a river port that is Santa Fe’s largest city, about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, high levels of poverty and crime push many residents into a cycle of narcotics-related violence that leads invariably to their deaths or to a precarious future in overcrowded prisons.
The city of some 1.3 million is rife with gang violence over control of turf and drug markets. This impacts youth especially hard. About 80 percent of crimes in the province are committed by young hitmen working for drug gangs, says Santa Fe prosecutor Matías Edery.
The newly incarcerated run into two kinds of people when they arrive: drug traffickers and preachers.
“We bring peace to prisons,” says the Rev. David Sensini of Iglesia el Redil de Cristo, one of the most influential evangelical churches in Rosario. “There was never a riot inside the evangelical cellblocks.”
Those who fight, smoke, or consume alcohol or drugs are expelled and relocated to the rougher parts of the prison.
Although Roman Catholicism remains overwhelmingly the faith of Argentina’s majority in the home country of Pope Francis, Evangelicalism is challenging that historical dominance. A recent survey found, for example, that Argentines claiming to be Catholics decreased from 76.5 percent in 2008 to 62.9 percent in 2019. Growth among evangelicals during the same period went from 9 to 15.3 percent.
“This increase in the faithful took place even more in prisons,” says Walter Gálvez, Santa Fe’s undersecretary of penitentiary affairs, who is also Pentecostal.
With evangelical faith spreading across Latin American countries, Argentina’s most vulnerable sectors, including inmates, have been particularly drawn to its allure, says Verónica Giménez, a researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research of Argentina. She says this is also a factor in other Latin American countries such as Brazil, where the enormously successful mission of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has as many as 14,000 members who work with prisoners.
An evangelical church called Iglesia Jesús Puerta del Cielo has the strongest presence in Santa Fe prisons, which, along with Iglesia el Redil de Cristo started its prison evangelical missions in the late 1980s. Between the two, they currently have more than 120 pastors working among inmates.
Recently, at an Iglesia el Redil de Cristo service in Rosario, Rev. Sensini asked those among the audience who had been incarcerated to raise their hands. About a third of those present responded with a show of hands.
“I don’t want to go back,” said Víctor Pereyra, a former inmate who owns a produce store, besides doing maintenance work. “Today I have a family to look after.”
“No one else is going to jail,” the Rev. Sensini told the gathering. “Change is possible.”
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