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.

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