Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Recently the saddest story ran in the Los Angeles Times about a 10-year-old boy who was slaughtered by his mother’s boyfriend. The point was that the boyfriend suspected that the child was gay and so tortured Anthony to death.

I’m not going to argue whether or not the child was gay or whether a kid can know such a thing at that age, as there’s plenty of talk about this issue in the comment field.

What drew my attention was something near the end of the article. Notice the fourth paragraph:

Anthony Avalos came out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said.
Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home last week with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body.
Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys” but declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when…
Nichols said that his department’s caseworkers documented years ago that Leiva was allegedly a member of the MS-13 criminal gang, but that information was not classified by the workers as a safety threat necessitating Anthony’s removal from the home, and the department never moved to have him permanently removed.

What I didn’t include in the article was a description of how Anthony and his siblings were tortured. Because that is part and parcel of how MS-13 operates and when I looked further into them, I discovered something else about them.

MS-13 is heavily into Satanism. Somehow I’d never realized that a surprising amount of outlets have written about this, especially since late last year. 

For those of you who, like me, didn't know this, the Washington Post probably has the best history of this group and its satanic roots:

Some of the gang’s founders were devil-worshiping metal heads, according to experts. And although the connection has waned over the past 30 years, it can still be seen in MS-13’s use of satanic nicknames, tattoos and other imagery. The gang’s devil horns hand sign is known as “la garra,” a Spanish reference to Satan’s claws. And some MS-13 members have told investigators that they committed their crimes at the behest of “la bestia,” or the Beast.
“The beast … wanted a soul,” an MS-13 member nicknamed Diabolical said after killing a 15-year-old girl who’d disrespected his satanic shrine, prosecutors told a Houston courtroom earlier this year.

The Post piece went deep into the history of the gang and how its founders got involved with Satanism.

“A few of its members were hard-core Satanists who worshipped the devil and went so far as to practice gruesome animal sacrifices,” (scholar Thomas) Ward writes. “These Satanists gave MSS its badass reputation for evil. Although the vast majority of these stoners never participated in these bloody ritual animal sacrifices or gave any thought to becoming Satanists, they banked on their gang’s reputation for devil worship, which gave it and them an aura of mystery and terror.”

So ... are these gang members satanic or not?

Hard to tell. I’ve been amazed how many foreign media are interested in this story. The tabloid Sun (UK) did a piece at the same time concentrating on a specific murder. The lead sentence:

A SATAN-LOVING street gang beheaded a man in broad daylight before ripping out his heart and tossing the corpse in a shallow grave.

You get the idea of where the article goes from there.

The (New Zealand) Herald talked about teen-aged girls being sacrificed to Satan:

Notorious street gang dubbed "world's most feared" is allegedly sacrificing underage girls in "Satanic rituals", US police say.
More than a dozen members of the LA-based, Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, have been charged in connection with at least eight murders, many involving high school students, across the US since last month.
While MS-13 has long been associated with devil worship and uses plenty of Satanic symbolism, including its trademark "devil's horns" hand signal, it is the first time evidence of members' alleged participation in Satanic murders has been presented in the US.

Not all media buy the religion link. Some, like this Vox backgrounder, seem to feel the Satan angle is more a game than reality. The best they did was this:

No matter where MS-13 first adopted its current nihilistic ethos — which marries semi-Satanic imagery (the original Stoners were Judas Priest fans) with extravagant brutality and violence — mass incarceration and deportation were what took the gang international.

Because of a spate of killings within its circulation area, the Houston Chronicle profiled the gang almost a year ago but also played down the satanic aspect

One source reporters have not approached is the Church of Satan itself. I found a Twitter debate between a digital activist based in Eugene, Ore., and the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based Church of Satan.

The latter’s response? Satanists are atheistic and do not condone violence.

None of the Satanists' opinions have appeared in any of the articles I’ve mentioned. Then again, none were written by religion reporters who might have ferreted out how shaky is the connection between honest-to-God (forgive the pun) Satanists and everyone else. Since this gang isn’t departing any time soon, I hope to see more coverage of the devil-worship aspect done by beat reporters.

It’s not a topic a lot of reporters, religion specialists or no, are dying to cover. I did so for a time while at the Houston Chronicle in the late ‘80s as there was a run of stories on satanic ritual abuse and I had to find out who these folks were. I showed up at one coven (with a photographer), dropped by some occult shops and interviewed a Satanist in a local restaurant who scoffed at the nature and Gaia worshippers as satanic wannabes. He also threatened me with a curse should I ever publish his name. 

How does one get out of MS-13? An opinion piece in the New York Times this past April gives a surprising response: Go to a Pentecostal church.

Other former gang members tell similar stories. The church — in particular the evangelical Pentecostal church — drew them into its fold and wrenched them, prayer service by prayer service, from the tenacious grip of the gangs. The gangs, in turn, respected this exit. Becoming an active member of a religious community remains virtually the only way someone can leave the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, alive.
There is little reliable data on how many members have left MS-13 by joining a church, but in a recent Florida International University survey of nearly 1,200 gang members in El Salvador’s jails, 58 percent said the church was the “most appropriate organization to lead rehabilitation programs.”

Sounds like what's needed is another "Cross and the Switchblade" saga for MS-13. Some of you may remember the famous 1962 book of that title about a Pentecostal preacher who won over some of New York's toughest gangs.

Are Pentecostals truly winning these folks over? Someone, please go out and see and cover it for the rest of us.

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