Argentina’s largest prison is located in the town of Olmos, less than 100 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, the capital of the country. It is a maximum security facility that houses nearly 3,000 inmates. One of the greatest and most dramatic miracles in modern history has taken place inside the walls of that prison.
Until a few years ago, the prison was in total chaos. Crime was rampant. Riots, murders, sexual abuse, extortion and male prostitution were commonplace. The prison was so out of control that by default the authorities turned over the daily running of the place to the mafia and drug dealers serving time there. These de facto leaders chose to reside on the fourth of five floors, which came to be known as the “elephant’s floor” since all the heavyweights lived there. Can you imagine what this place became when the worst inmates were given the run of it? Even a Church of Satan was established on the premises and animal sacrifices were offered regularly. Olmos – as the prison is commonly known – was so impregnable that pastors from the nearby towns had great difficulty getting inside its perimeter.
There is a tunnel that connects the outside world with the prison. A local pastor reported that as he tried to get inside the prison, halfway through that tunnel he would become ill and had to be carried out. Some inmates reported being tormented by demons which, according to those reports, literally materialized in their cells. Satan was in control indeed. However, it appears that the evil one made a gross miscalculation that eventually did him in. This had to do with grace. As you know, grace requires the pre-existence of sin and the greater the sin, the greater the grace available to the repentant sinner. By those standards, Olmos was more than qualified. This is how it came about:
Miracle begins: In the nearby town of La Plata, a well-known pastor was caught committing a crime and was sentenced to serve time—at Olmos! At first it appeared that Satan had won: his citadel remained impregnable and a church leader had been publicly disgraced. But the pastor repented and cried out to God for a second chance. And God is indeed the God of second chances. God forgave him and filled him with the Holy Spirit. Now this pastor was determined to see God bring good out of terrible evil. Incensed with a passion for the lost and overwhelmed with gratitude to God for his grace, he became what I call “a spiritual kamikaze”. In his attempt to preach the gospel to everyone around, he thrust himself with gusto into the very pit of hell. He witnessed to the mafia dons, gang leaders, drug dealers and even to the Church of Satan priests! Like a kamikaze pilot, he gave up his life in order to cause the most damage possible to the enemy.
Very soon a small group of believers emerged. What Satan must have thought as an impregnable place, now hosted an emerging Christian church. I believe that the anxiety he must have felt about this led to his second miscalculation. A persecution against the Christians was unleashed. If persecution can be brutal in the outside world where existing laws, the possibility of help and refuge, and the availability of the media can somehow mitigate it, imagine the persecution inside a maximum security prison run by the ruthless and fearless. However, God, was in control and the Biblical principle that whatever Satan plans for evil God turns around for good still held.
The persecution gave the Christian inmates legal grounds to request protection in the form of their own cell block — each cell block houses 42 inmates. The authorities reluctantly agreed and granted the new Christians a cell block of their own on the worst floor. The church was placed in the midst of his control and command center . . . aware that their lives were at risk, the inmates organized themselves as a church. The first order of business was a 40 day fast. They also divided themselves into seven teams of six people each. Each team was to stand guard every night from 11PM to 5AM, working in pairs they prayed, read the Bible and moved from bed to bed interceding for each one of their sleeping Christian inmates. After two hours they rotate tasks. This approach became highly effective, not only in protecting their own perimeter but also in infiltrating Satan’s perimeter inside the prison.
In answer to those prayers, Juan Zucarelli, a pastor in town, felt led to apply for a job at the prison. Zucarelli was interviewed by several officials, and all of them said, “We do not want you here, we hate you. If you get the job, we may even hurt you. Get lost!’ But Zucarelli persevered and against all odds—except God’s—he got the job. As he connected with the emerging prison church, things began to happen. They prayed for and were given one and a half hours a week on the prison radio station, which all inmates hear since the speaker cannot be turned down nor can the station be changed. Very soon the weekly Gospel message began to make an impact on the prison population. This, coupled with intense prayer activity in the Christian cell block, produced mass conversions. Today 44 percent of the inmates are born again.
As soon as 42 new converts are admitted to the church, a cell block is made available for them to move in. A resident pastor is appointed from among the inmates and the same routine of prayer, fasting and night vigils is instituted.
Since no money is allowed to circulate inside the prison, the inmates tithe from the care packages they receive from relatives. Last year a town in Central Argentina was devastated by floods and the church in the prison was able to send relief by using the product of their tithes. They fast twice a week and hold church services every day.
There are 19 cell blocks that occupy the entire fourth floor and 80% of the third floor. Nearly 1,300 inmates have received Christ. Recent unconfirmed reports state that the number of guards has been reduced from 300 to 30 as a result of behavior standards of the Christians. Normally 50% of the inmates find themselves back in prison following their release. Of the 604 released Christians, only three have returned – less than half of one percent!
During an International Institute which Harvest Evangelism holds in Argentina every fall, we (Army of Intercessors) organized a trip to the prison to meet with the inmates. The prison chapel is too small to accommodate the growing number of believers, so they have removed all the furniture. More than 800 inmates stand shoulder to shoulder except when they kneel to pray. Their vibrant singing is incredibly moving. One of the inmate pastors said to our group, ‘If you came to see prisoners, you have come to the wrong place. We are free men, free indeed!’ Even though their bodies are in prison, they roam the heavenly places in prayer and intercession!
© Renewal Journal #16: Vision (2000, 2012) renewaljournal.com
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