Evangelical churches throughout Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, partnered with local authorities recently to exchange gang members' illegal weapons for Bibles in an attempt to reduce the country's crime rate.
Over 1,300 guns, knives and machetes were recovered during the month-long initiative that prompted church leaders to go into the city's most corrupt and violent neighborhoods while they took the opportunity to evangelize to gangsters and other criminals.
"We congratulate all the young people, and everyone who turned in their weapons, that was an act of goodwill," said Braulio Porte, a Santo Domingo pastor, according to AcontecerCristiano.com. "When they say they won't continue with that knife, and prefer a Bible instead, that is transformation and a blessing for our country."
During the weapon exchange initiative, Cristiana Estrella, who belongs to a church in a town nearby Santo Domingo, said the crime prevention plan was going to become a nationwide effort and noted that while they visited neighborhoods, many confessed that they were plotting violent crimes with the same weapons they gave up.
While Santo Domingo was the focus of the churches' efforts, other cities that have experienced a recent crime wave include Altagracia, Santiago, La Vega, San Cristóbal and Peravia. As a result, the government deployed military forces to aid local authorities into several of the country's crime-ridden cities earlier this year to patrol the streets.
The deployment included over 3,000 soldiers and was implemented after a slew of criminal attacks and assaults took place in broad daylight throughout urban areas. However, some Dominican civil society and human rights groups have condemned the use of military in policing functions, and are calling for police reform.
"When this phenomenon affects the behavior and lifestyle of the ordinary citizen, it becomes a responsibility of the Armed Forces," said Sigfrido Pared Pérez, minister of the Armed Forces, according to Latin American news outlet InfoSurHoy.com.
In an effort to eradicate illicit weapon trafficking, the United States has also stepped in with the help of an Organization of American States-sponsored firearms marking program, implemented in the Dominican Republic last year, to facilitate the record of legally bought guns.
According to the United Nations, the murder rate in the Dominican Republic has doubled over the last 20 years to 25 murders per 100,000 residents. Although the rate is not as high compared to other Latin American nations including Honduras where it stands at 85 per 100,000 residents, Dominicans have become more concerned for their safety as theft and robberies have also risen.