Looking back, Deras tells the boys at juvenile hall, he sees that his commanders manipulated him.
His army buddies nicknamed him "Satan," Deras says, because before battle he practiced black magic rituals of burning incense, lighting candles and placing curses on the enemy. "I didn't want to just hurt people with weapons. I wanted to hurt them in other ways," Deras says.
In November 1989, he was shot in the shoulder during a bloody offensive in the suburbs of San Salvador. He was sent home to recuperate. His mother begged him not to go back to his unit and persuaded him to go live with relatives in the San Fernando Valley, where he could land a good job and make something of his life. He says he made the monthlong journey by bus and crossed the border into Arizona illegally. Shortly after arriving in March 1990, he received political asylum as a former combatant in the war.
But Deras wasn't prepared to leave the fighting behind and wanted to be part of MS-13, which had been formed by Salvadoran refugees.
"I loved war," he says.
The way he saw it, gang life wasn't much different from the army. You were fighting alongside your countrymen, he says, only this time the opponents were entrenched Mexican American street gangs.
Within months of arriving, he joined an MS-13 clique operating near North Hills. Drawing partly on his U.S. military training, Deras says, he showed members how to clean their weapons and break up into small teams when they carried out crimes.
"I didn't want to be a simple gang member," he says to the boys at juvenile hall. "I dreamed of being a leader."
His rise in MS-13 was bloody. In 1991, a friend died in his arms after being shot in a Van Nuys alley. A year later, in a turf fight with another gang, Deras was repeatedly kicked in the face. His mouth was wired shut for two months, he says, and he lost 30 pounds because he could consume only liquids. He says he did repeated stints in County Jail — the longest a year — for armed robbery, car theft and weapons possession.
By 1992, he was an MS-13 shot caller as crack cocaine flooded the streets and gangs were using high-powered weapons, helping fuel record levels of bloodshed in the city.
Around the same time, activist William "Blinky" Rodriguez was trying to organize a truce among dozens of Latino street gangs across the Valley. The only gang not involved was MS-13. Rodriguez, who now heads the Valley's Communities in Schools program, said Deras was one of the few people with the power to bring his clique to a peace summit at a Pacoima park. Rodriguez invited Deras, and he accepted.
As several hundred warring gang members gathered around, Rodriguez read from the Bible and said he did not want them to end up like his son, who at 16 was killed by gang members in a random shooting as he was learning to drive a stick-shift car in Sylmar.
Deras said that when he heard Rodriguez read from the Bible, a seed was planted.
But the seed didn't flower until 1998, when the senselessness of his life finally hit him. He began going to church.
He said MS-13 members accepted his change but issued a dire warning: His conversion had better be genuine and not just a ruse to break away from the gang. "If you're going to do it, do it right," he recalled one leader saying.
Impressed by Deras' turnaround, Rodriguez said, he hired the MS-13 veteran in 2003 to work with other inactive and ex-gang members at Communities in Schools. Deras said he has become a family man with six children, including a boy born in November.
Standing before the teenagers at juvenile hall, Deras says those he once sought to kill he now wants to help. "I don't use my hands to carry a gun or spray can," he says.
The challenges facing Deras were evident on a Sunday morning when he arrived at his Van Nuys church with two MS-13 members — a 23-year-old who said he'd changed his life and another, a 19-year-old, who insisted he wanted to.