RIO DE JANEIRO — Bible in hand, Pastor William Souza stood behind a wooden stand and faced dozens of his followers on a Saturday night. It was late March in the heart of Acari, a favela, or low-income community, that is one of the most violent hot spots for drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro. The evangelical church, called “the Community for Restoring Lives,” had turned a neighborhood night club into its new home and was christening the space with an inaugural mass.
“How do we win over a favela like this one?” William, who is 42, asked as he pointed toward the church’s double doors, which remained open to the neighbors playing ping-pong or drinking beer on plastic tables outside. “We see the drug dealer on the corner, and we bring him the word of God.”
William founded the church nine years ago and became a part of the astounding rise of the evangelical faith in Brazil. In this traditionally Catholic country, a study by Brazilian pollster DataFolha found that the percentage of evangelicals has grown from 10 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 2016. And of those 29 percent, more than half hail from low-income households that earn up to two minimum wages (approximately $40 a month).
The religion has only gotten stronger under President Jair Bolsonaro, an ultra-conservative former army captain who openly supports evangelical leaders.
In communities where there are few opportunities for a better life, evangelical pastors provide a support system and an alternative to crime. One of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio, Acari was ranked third worst in the city’s Human Development Index, a statistic used by the U.N. to measure socioeconomic development. Local drug lords will give dealers permission to leave a gang if they choose to embrace a religious life instead. Many who look to the evangelical church for help turn into believers and end up becoming pastors themselves.
One of William’s protégés, Pastor Carlos Eduardo Gomes Oliveira, did just that. The 38-year-old warehouse employee started in the drug trade when he was just 12 years-old. He was also best friends with Capilé, the former leader of Acari’s powerful Terceiro Comando Puro gang until he was imprisoned in 2018.
Carlos made good money packaging and distributing drugs but decided to call it quits seven years ago when police opened fire on his and two other gang members during a raid. “My friend who was with us was hit badly. As we dragged his body down the street, his mother saw us and rushed over. He died in her arms,” he said.
After his friend’s death, Pastor William began making house calls to see Carlos, eventually convincing him to join the evangelical faith. And the local boss did not stand in his way. “Capilé just asked me to do one thing for him in return. He asked me to pray for him,” Carlos recalled. Now, Carlos is running his own door-to-door campaign to bring the faith to other drug dealers.
But his efforts are still small-scale compared to the sophisticated conversion circuit that is underway thousands of miles away in the northwestern Amazonian state of Acre. In the capital city of Rio Branco, Equipe 91, a group of 70 former criminals turned evangelical pastors, have been “rescuing” people since 2012. The group is named after the 91st psalm in the bible that promises the Lord will provide salvation from “deadly pestilence.”
A hotbed for criminal activity, Acre shares a border with both Bolivia and Peru, two of the world’s largest cocaine producers. The territory is highly disputed by Brazilian gangs for providing strategic access to the international drug trade. Brazil also has the most cocaine consumers in the world, after the United States. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of homicides increased by 276,6 percent in Acre due to drug-trafficking disputes in the region, according to Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research.
But with Equipe 91’s blessing, gang leaders will allow a member to leave, and in return, the group will assign a pastor to keep tabs on the newly converted and make sure they don’t stray from the faith. “Our job is to save souls,” says Francisco Ferreira da Conceição, one of Equipe 91’s high-ranking leaders who is known around town as Ferreirinha. “We do this out of faith alone. We don’t get paid to do what we do,” he adds.
Ferreirinha’s phone is constantly ringing, sometimes even at 2 am. People who want to “get saved” call and put in a request for an impromptu conversion ceremony. After a mass is held, the new convert must record a cellphone video attesting to their newfound faith. They specify who they are, what gang they belong to, and explain that they want to leave and embrace God. The videos are then sent to local gang leaders and an informal agreement is forged solidifying their exit from their criminal organization. Over the past four years, Ferreirinha has recorded more than 2,500 conversion videos, he said, which he stores on several pen drives.
Local kingpins accept this arrangement because the system benefits them as well, according to Ferreirinha. Most criminal careers end in one of two ways: death or prison. But thanks to the pact Equipe 91 has established with local drug lords, a third way was created through adherence to the evangelical faith. “The [drug lords] know that eventually they will be forced to leave the crime world. They respect us because they know that we are their only way out should they need it one day,” the pastor explains.
Four years ago, Ferreirinha was the leader of B13, a prominent gang in Acre. After spending 30 years in the drug business and going in and out of jail 25 times, he decided he had enough. “Three weeks before I accepted Jesus, rival gang members tried to kill me four times,” Ferrerinha recalled. During one of these attempts his house was targeted by a flurry of bullets forcing him to rush out with two of his children under his arms. “My son turned to me and said: ‘daddy they are shooting at you.’ At that moment, God entered my heart and I promised him that if he let us out alive, I would quit this life for good and focus on raising my kids,” Ferreirinha told VICE World News.
“Of course there are specific cases where people convert to escape life threatening situations, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stick to the faith and stay in the Church,” said Christina Vital da Cunha, author and associate professor of sociology at Federal Fluminense. “Judging and questioning their motives for conversion in these situations only generates prejudice,” she adds. A member of the non-profit Institute for Religious Studies (ISER), Vital has studied religion in low-income communities in Brazil since 1996. She said that the evangelical church provides a structure and “an actual plan” for drug traffickers who want to change their lives. But the trend also highlights “that there are very few other alternatives being offered outside of the Church for hope of a better life.”
Conrrado Sena, founder of Equipe 91, is a testament to that. Once one of the country’s most notorious bank robbers, Conrrado said he got into crime because he saw no other way of getting by. Raised in the low-income neighborhood of Cadeia Velha, six out of his eight siblings have done prison time.
But Conrrado found his true calling while he was in jail. “I heard a voice telling me to read the bible. And even though I couldn’t read, somehow, I picked it up and understood what it said,” he recalled. He was imprisoned in 2000 and remained in jail for 12 years. “In the beginning of my sentence, catholic priests were always visiting the jail. Then with time they disappeared, and the evangelicals started coming. We all felt [the evangelicals] were different. They were more involved,” he adds.
Of the 40 religious leaders who visit Acre’s jails today, 30 are evangelical pastors. “We have been investing in partnerships with churches because it helps create a more stable, respectful environment inside the prisons. Although we are open to all religions, only the evangelical church has sought us out to further develop our program”, said Liliane Moura, director of the local government’s religious assistance program in Acre.
There are currently 6,130 prisoners in the State’s penitentiary system in Acre. Those who embrace God can submit a written request to be transferred to a separate section in the jail designated for religious inmates only. Equipe 91 created an outreach initiative partnering with the government that allows them to hold mass and run prayer circles with inmates inside the jails. They also provide a support system to those who are released.
“Today I am no longer a part of a gang. I have handed my life to Christ,” said an inmate who asked to remain anonymous. His testimony appears in a conversion video Equipe 91 filmed inside Acre’s Francisco de Oliveira Conde prison in late March.
The prisoner, who was set to be released a day after the recording was made, asked Equipe 91 to step in and spread the word that he had no intention of returning to a life of crime once he was out. “I want to ask for forgiveness. I just want to take care of my family and embrace Jesus.”