The timing just worked out that way — I couldn’t have planned to be there when all of the violence unfolded and Mr. Pacheco risked his life to stop it. The drama — the shootings, the threats, the fear — bound us all closer and therefore, oddly, made access to members of Casa Blanca easier.
They got used to seeing me, confiding in me. I was there every day, listening, taking notes, asking questions. But mostly, my station at the pastor’s side, a reporting lens I had not anticipated when we first met, was the most credible way into the lives of people with whom it might have otherwise taken years to speak.
I admired the pastor, and he was good company. He laughed all the time, even in the darkest scenarios. He was sharp, and his intentions were pure. I think he came to find comfort in my presence, too.
On more than one occasion, when we would sit down to speak with a gang leader, the pastor would introduce himself and then abruptly toss the baton to me. I was stunned: I had come to watch, not talk. But eventually I got used to his tactics, and learned to break the ice and ask the questions I genuinely wanted to know — how the gangs worked, what their plans for Casa Blanca were and what role violence played in their structures.
These interviews gave him a chance to seize on their answers to my questions. He was trying to bend people to his will — convince them to sue for peace while at the same time making it feel like the idea was their own. By the time our three weeks ended, with the prospects of peace on the horizon, Mr. Pacheco told me this was the most involved and risky intervention he had ever tried. And it was emotional. On the way home from one of our meetings with a source, he wept.
After I left, things began to unravel — the peace deal, the accord with MS-13 and even the direction of the violence. One of the main characters was murdered by the 18th Street gang — Reinaldo, a quiet and decent young man whom I’d met on my first day in Casa Blanca territory.
Finishing the story, I struggled with how to draw something from the experience. For all the effort, time, risk and heart that went into the pastor’s campaign, in the end he could not save those lives he risked his own to protect. And yet, he would keep trying, without help from the outside world and largely in the sight of no one.
In the end, that was as hopeful an ending as anyone could expect.
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