I chose Demon as my gang name—because I had no soul, and I wanted to torment. I had nothing. I was born dead.

When the MS-13 gang first found me, I was almost 16 years old. My family lived in El Salvador. My mother died having my sister when I was seven. And my father died driving drunk when I was 13. My sister and I were put into different foster homes despite our pleas not to be. I didn’t see her much after that. Six months later I went to live with an uncle and aunt, and then a few months later with a different uncle and aunt, and then with some family friend. I bounced between all of them for a while. I was pretty much alone and vulnerable. That’s what gangs look for—your weakness. So, when they asked me to join, I did. I figured no one could get me if I was one of them.

My initiation was to kill a boy. They said he used to be one of us, but he left the gang without permission. It was a test and a message that I both passed and took to heart. With gangs it’s all about control and money and using violence to get them. The first time I shook someone down was at a party we crashed. Some guy looked at me wrong, didn’t hand me the money when I demanded it. So, I laid him out on the floor and kicked and punched him all over his body. I didn’t feel bad, because beating felt good; it was the first time I can remember feeling alive—like years of emptiness got filled in with anger. From then on, rage was my lifeline. I’d point a gun in some woman’s faces and a knife in a guy’s back. I’d wave a machete at some kid who’d tried to run away when I was collecting. I’d laugh at their fear, mock their cowering, cut the soul out of them if it got me what I wanted.

One night when I was 22, one of the members of our gang told us some guy wasn’t paying his rent, so we decided to pay a visit to his house. We knew he wasn’t going to be there, but that his daughter was. Only it turned out that the girl was not his daughter, but my sister. At first, I didn’t recognize her; it had been years since I’d seen her face. But she recognized me. I knew what they were going to do, and I stood there paralyzed and mute when one pinned her down and tore off her pants. She was screaming my name—not Demon, but Eduardo. And then something happened inside me: all that rage that had kept me alive all those years suddenly was suffocating, and I couldn’t breathe, and all I knew was that my hand found my gun. And with a cascade of bullets everyone was dead—everyone, somehow, but my sister.

I never believed in miracles, because it was the devil I’d always worshipped. But whatever it was that that made me pull out the pistol and choose love of family over loyalty to that brotherhood, showed me that goodness does exist—even within someone who’s done as much bad as me.

Gang members see themselves as forever ruined; given the evil they inflict, I can understand why. Saving my sister’s life is the best thing I’ve done, not only because she’s still here, but also because I finally feel that I have done something right.

I left the gang and my community that night and took my sister with me. We changed our names and appearances, for safety reasons of course, but also because I no longer felt like the person that I had been. That was five years ago.

I’d be lying if I said at times that I don’t still feel a lot of guilt—for all the pain I caused so many people. I can’t repay all that I took from them, but I can give to others now. As I’ve found, doing something that helps someone else is so much more rewarding than doing something that just benefits you—and being sincere about it, which I am, does wonders for self-forgiveness. So, every day I try to do a few small things, in earnest, that contribute to someone else’s life—like helping young kids get out of gangs and families who have lost loved ones to gang violence.

I may have been born dead, but feeling a sense of worth has given me new life. My purpose of doing “good” now is my vow. And God help me, that’s one I’m going to keep.

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