Soldiers stand guard during a raid against gang members in the Salvadoran city of Soyapango on December 4, 2022

Soyapango (El Salvador) (AFP) - Mauricio Gonzalez, an Evangelical pastor in a Salvadoran city overrun with violent street gangs, says life there used to be terrifying.

In his La Campanera neighborhood of the city of Soyapango, on the outskirts of San Salvador, gangsters threatened to kill him for preaching to young people.

“The gang would not tolerate it. So I left and did not come back,” said Gonzalez, carrying a Bible in his hand. He said that for a decade now, no one from his church has dared venture into La Campanera, which is home mainly to factory workers.

But that changed this weekend as 10,000 soldiers and police, many armed with assault rifles, surrounded the city and started patrolling its streets, going from house to house to arrest suspected gang members.

Here, the gang that runs things is called Barrio 18, “barrio” meaning neighborhood. It is one of the most violent gangs in El Salvador.

“Before, not even God cold save us from the gangsters. Today is different, said Gonzalez, who is 52.

Indeed, on Sunday, Gonzalez came to La Campanera with about 30 members of his church to preach.

The huge security operation that began Saturday was part of a state of emergency declared by President Nayib Bukele this spring following a surge in gang violence.

The president had announced last month a plan to use troops to surround cities while house-by-house searches are conducted for gang members. Soyapango is the first city subjected to that approach.

- A big change for the better -

As of Saturday, the authorities reported only 12 arrests in the operation in Soyapango.

But on Sunday police did say they had arrested a major Barrio 18 figure. They identified him as Guillermo Alexander Pineda, alias “Lazy,” and said he had ordered killings and extortions nationwide.

An armored car patrols in a gang-ruled neighborhood called La Campanera

On Sunday, a group of soldiers took up position on the only street leading into La Campanera, searching everyone entering or leaving either on foot on in cars. Others patrol in armored cars rumbling through narrow streets of cement homes in this working class area.

Residents walked about looking relaxed, and shopped at sidewalk stands. Before, there were many fewer such vendors, as merchants could not afford the extortion payments that gangsters demanded.

“Only someone who has not lived here would not realize how different things are now,” said Etelvina Rosas, 36, who was selling fruit. “Today everything is safer. People are daring to do business. You don’t see the young guys in the streets,” she said, referring to gang members.

She said that several times she has had to pay off the gangs.

A man is arrested in the raid in Soyapango

Since Bukele declared the state of emergency in March, more than 58,000 suspected gang members have been arrested, the government says, although humanitarian groups have questioned what they say can be heavy-handed tactics.

The nationwide state of emergency, which allows detention without court order, followed a surge in violence that claimed 87 lives between March 25 and 27.

Despite opposition from humanitarian groups, the emergency order was extended by Congress to mid-December.

Soyapango Mayor Nercy Montano said last week that government actions in the city had brought a huge improvement in safety.

- War zone -

On the road leading to La Campanera there is a settlement called Las Margaritas, which historically is controlled by a gang called Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which is the arch enemy Barrio 18.

On one of the streets in Las Margaritas, at least six armored cars were visible Sunday.

“Our orders are to not leave a single terrorist in Soyapango,” a soldier who declined to give his name told AFP.

Gangs in El Salvador, called maras in Spanish, normally paint walls with distinctive graffiti to mark off territory, but in Las Margaritas the authorities have erased those writings.

Police and soldiers escort a detainee during the anti-gang raid in Soyapango

Mirna Polanco, a 24-year-old university student, said as she walked along the road that connects Las Margaritas and La Campanera that this used to be a war zone because of the gun battles the two gangs would wage.

“All of that has been going away and let’s hope it stays that way from now on,” Polanco said.

“We will not leave Soyapango until we capture the last gang member,” said Defense Minister Rene Merino.