CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — As a teenager, Wilmer Espinoza carried two handguns and belonged to a gang of hired killers. For as little as $700, they would stalk and slay people their clients wanted eliminated.
Today, the 30-year-old carries only a worn Bible in his jacket pocket, and he has traded his band of assassins for another group: Christian rappers who preach for peace in some of Latin America’s most violent slums.
Espinoza and his rapper friends grew up in a country where thousands of young people die in gun violence each year, and in a city where dozens of bodies regularly fill the morgue in a single weekend. Government officials say Venezuela suffered 48 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, making the country among Latin America’s most violent.
Surviving that carnage meant a radical personal change, Espinoza said, starting with the day seven years ago when he destroyed his guns — a pistol, two revolvers and a shotgun — by cutting them into pieces with a grindstone. He did it to leave the past behind completely, at the urging of his mother and a rapper friend.
At first he was afraid to be defenseless, but he has survived while most of the others in his gang have died.
He now uses the stage name “Kaminante,” or Walker, because he sees himself as “someone who walks on, who advances, who doesn’t look back.” He credits divine intervention in his recovery from gunshot wounds that nearly left him paralyzed a decade ago.
“There are people in the barrios who need a message,” said Espinoza, a soft-spoken and bespectacled man with close-cropped hair. “We offer them hope.”
The rap group to which he belongs, Los Mas Fuertes Records, or The Strongest Ones Records, was founded three years ago and is one of several distinct grass-roots efforts by Caracas hip-hop artists who use music to reach out to troubled teenagers and give them an outlet to express themselves.
Polls show Venezuelans consider violent crime the country’s top problem, and the issue has become fodder for political debate. President Hugo Chavez’s government has only sporadically released murder statistics in recent years, and his opponents call the crime rate one of his greatest failures.
While two other Caracas rap groups include musicians who express support for Chavez, those in Los Mas Fuertes Records say they’re not taking a political stand and that their message is universal. Everyone has the power to change their communities, they tell their audiences.
The rappers spread that message performing at schools, churches and outdoor concerts in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.
One evening last month, they began their show in the orange glow of a streetlight on a dirt road, among bare brick homes with barred windows and shacks made of corrugated zinc.
“We invite you to come over!” one of the rappers, Joe D’Cristo, shouted into a microphone. “We’re going to start a special event for the community right now!”
At first, less than a dozen people stood waiting, along with children seated in rows of plastic chairs. Several men swilled beer outside a bodega down the road, taking little notice.
But within minutes, a crowd had gathered, and dozens of people clapped and swayed to the music. In front of two large speakers, the air shook with the thundering reggaeton beat.
Microphone in hand, Espinoza rocked back and forth singing: “Wake up, wake up! The trumpets have sounded!”
After the song, he confessed to the crowd: “I used to be a thug. … Glory to God for what he did in my life.”
The crowd responded enthusiastically to the message, clapping for Espinoza and two other rappers whose songs also dealt with turning away from crime.
One teenage girl cradled a baby in her arms as she listened, while others a few years younger sucked on lollypops. Several of the boys wore baseball caps backward, their thumbs hanging from the front pockets of their jeans.
Joe D’Cristo, whose real name is Jose Herrera and who founded the group, paused for a prayer and a short speech, saying killings have become so frequent in Venezuela partly due to decaying values.
“I’m putting out a call to the youth and the people of this barrio who want to change society,” said the bearded Herrera, who wore a tight black T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Revolution.” ‘’I’m saying it’s time to have principles and values. I’m saying it’s time for change!”
When Herrera invited people to step forward if they wanted to help change their community, five men walked up and stood beside him.
After the concerts, young men regularly approach Herrera and the other rappers interested in joining the group, which had been unique in Caracas for preaching a Christian message. Years ago, Herrera befriended Espinoza and helped him get into Christian rap. Their small recording label is now working with more than 30 young artists, and it’s produced more than a dozen albums.
“We’ve seen results,” Herrera said.
One 21-year-old recruit, Yoardy Ramirez, said learning to become a disc jockey has helped him kick his binge drinking, which he struggled with for three years.
“I’m a new person,” he said.
The rappers gather most afternoons in their tiny recording studio, a windowless, second-story office loaned by a church in a gritty Caracas neighborhood. Their CDs hang on the wall, and a decal on the recording booth window reads: “Jesus the water of life.”
“We all sing differently, but we have the same vision: positive,” Herrera said, sitting in front of the computer where he edits tracks. “This is like a home where young people are given tools and they feel like a family.”
The rappers sometimes get teary-eyed in the studio about the experiences described in their lyrics, many of which address the violence around them.
“The street is sick,” rapped Edgar “Edu Ministro” Peroza in the studio one afternoon. “It needs to be healed. What the street needs, it needs peace. … What the street needs, it needs a change.”
Espinoza said one of his songs came to him in a dream, and he scribbled out the Christian-themed words when he awoke. He said his music is also influenced by those years when, often high on crack and other drugs, “we became monsters.”
Espinoza said he lost track of how many people he killed with his gang, often in drive-by shootings. He declined to discuss details. Like most homicides in Venezuela, the cases went unsolved.
Espinoza never went to prison for murder, though he was jailed nine times on other charges such as assault, and each time got out when his partners bribed authorities on his behalf.
With his music not yet paying the bills, Espinoza works as a motorcycle taxi driver to support his two children, ages 2 and 3.
“It really weighs on me, all the people I harmed,” Espinoza said. He hopes his music can help pay society back, at least partly, for his crimes.
The music, he said, is “for those who are destroying themselves in the streets.”
But even in his new life, the street regularly reminds him of who he once was.
He recently happened upon the body of a 16-year-old boy whom he knew, shot dead while riding through the neighborhood on his motorcycle. With tears, Espinoza mourned yet another one lost.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.