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SAN SALVADOR: Years ago, Carlos Argueta broke away from Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador's most violent gangs, and now leads a normal life working in a clothing factory where he was given a second chance.

Since 2010, the 33-year-old has been employed at the League plant, located in an industrial park some 32 kilometers (20 miles) west of San Salvador, that makes shirts for US universities and has a 190-strong workforce.

With muscular arms covered with multi-colored tattoos that attest to his past gang membership, he deftly maneuvered a forklift between shelves stacked high with rolls of cloth.

Argueta takes pride in having left behind his past of violence and hatred. "I am not ashamed to admit that I made serious mistakes, that I pushed my life to the limit. Everything was violence and hatred, but it's over now," he told AFP. "Today, I work, I have a son, a wife and I am reborn. God pulled me out of the grave."

Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, was initially formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles by young immigrants from poverty-stricken El Salvador, still reeling from years of civil war, where gang violence and drug-trafficking flourished.

The gang later spread across the United States, making headlines by carrying out murders, assaults, rapes, robberies, and running prostitution rings. Many of its members were deported back to their homeland.

Salvadoran authorities believe domestic street gangs count more than 30,000 members, and they blame the gangs for 90 percent of the country's homicides, with most of the dead being gang members.

Indeed, El Salvador, home to six million people, has a level of violence only second in the region to Honduras the world's deadliest country with a homicide rate of 65 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Central America is a key transportation hub for illegal drugs, especially cocaine from South America, heading through Mexico to be smuggled into the United States. Mexican cartels like the violent Zetas have entered in the region and formed alliances with the local gangs.

Argueta is among two dozen former MS-13 members now working at the League factory for a monthly pay of around $240.

Plant manager Rodrigo Bolanos firmly believes gang members can be rehabilitated and he said he prefers to employ the ex-criminals "that nobody wants."

"They are people who once rehabilitated turn into dedicated and efficient employees," he told AFP.

"Many in the country find it difficult to believe in us and it hurts. But we have to put up with it," said Sergio Rivera, another ex-gang member who expertly sews pieces of cloth in the factory.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, a dozen rehabilitated ex-members of the Mara 18 street gang package food at the Exportadora Rio Grande company for export to the United States and Canada.

Working among boxes loaded with tamales (a corn-based, starchy dough), corn tortillas, frozen fruits and vegetables, 31-year-old Mauricio Castro says life does offer a second chance.

"Nothing is easy, but one can change. I got tired of walking the streets, hurting people, stealing. I stopped and I won't go back," he told AFP.

And he vows that he is now following "God's way" since he joined an evangelical church where he met the woman he plans to marry soon.

Ricardo Martinez, manager of Exportadora Rio Grande, told AFP that his company decided to set up a non-profit organization called "We work for peace" to promote rehabilitation of gang members in various parts of San Salvador.

"We in the business community have to play our part. We can't just see that there is a problem and not try to do something to resolve it. The gangs spread precisely because of this attitude, because of the lack of social attention," he noted.

In the town of Apopa, "We work for Peace" has set up projects such as a car wash and a silk screen printing shop to help provide employment to ex-members of the Mara Maquina gang.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012

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