|As an example, 40% of the approximately 6,900 inmates in the province of Santa Fe live in evangelical wards, estimates Walter Gálvez, Undersecretary of Penitentiary Affairs, who is also a Pentecostal. The Puerta del Cielo (‘Heaven’s Door’) and Redil de Cristo (‘Christ’s Sheepfold’) congregations are among those that exert strong influence in Santa Fe’s prisons. They began to evangelise inmates in the late 1980s and today have more than 120 pastors working inside prisons.
From hired killer to pastor
Rosario, a city with 1.3 million inhabitants, has high levels of poverty and crime. Violence between gangs seeking to control territory and drug markets has helped to fill its jails. Eighty percent of crimes in Rosario are carried out by young hitmen who provide services to the drug gangs, whose bosses are imprisoned and maintain control of the criminal business from the jails.
Jorge Anguilante from Piñero prison was sentenced to 12 years for murder. He has been allowed to head home every weekend to minister in a small evangelical church he started in a garage in Argentina’s most violent city. As he leaves, the former criminal-turned-pastor greets the guards with a single word: “Blessings!” His violent life is behind him, the word of God made him “a new man.”
His story, of a convicted murderer embracing an evangelical faith behind bars, is common in the dungeons of Argentina’s Santa Fe province and its capital city, Rosario. Many began selling drugs as teenagers and were caught in a spiral of violence that sent some to their graves and others to overcrowded prisons divided between two forces: the evangelicals and the drug traffickers.
In a church service in prison pop-style hymns blared from loudspeakers while three TV cameras recorded the ceremony for other worshippers watching at home via a YouTube channel. “No one else is going to jail. Not your children, not your grandchildren,” the pastor shouted to the crowd. “Change is possible!”
Inmate Ruben Luna, who is serving a 14-year sentence for murder, embraces Sebastian Monje, who has been in prison for eight months for attempted murder and robbery, before being baptised inside an evangelical cellblock at the penitentiary in Pinero.