After migrating illegally from Guatemala with his mother when he was 11, Ramirez said, he ran away, joined the gang and spiraled downward into drug addiction, arrests and suicide attempts. Now, he's working, helping to support a family, and wears a colostomy bag that he said keeps him focused on a future beyond gangs.
The 19-year-old wore a watch cap during the service and asked not to be identified. He was slower than the others to close his eyes and join Deras and other worshipers as they raised their arms and sang Spanish hymns. Afterward, he said he still runs with MS-13 members but likes attending the Sunday services.
"Every time I come," he said, "a little of the bad goes away."
Days later, he was smoking weed with another gang member as they patrolled an Encino apartment complex that the gang claims as its turf.
'These Guys Are Dead'
For Deras, the job follows no predictable or convenient schedule.
One rainy evening, after leaving the hospital where his prematurely born son was being treated, he got a call for help from a woman he has known for years. She's an inactive MS-13 member. But now, she told Deras, MS-13 members were threatening her 15-year-old boy, who joined a rival gang.
Deras assured her he would talk to the MS-13 members. But he also said he needed to speak to her son. A short while later, Deras was back at his office, with the boy seated at the edge of his desk. He asked the boy why he joined a gang.
All his friends are gang members, he answered.
Deras played a video dramatizing the murder of Rodriguez's son. Afterward, he pointed to photos of stern-faced gang members and talked about the price of gang membership.
"All these guys are dead," Deras said. "They thought they were tough."
Deras then took the boy to his apartment, where they waited for his mother to pick him up. In an interview afterward, Carol Peña, 32, said Deras made a connection with her son. "It gave him something to think about," she said. "It impressed him what Ernesto does."
Back at the Sylmar juvenile hall, the teens are lined up on rows of stainless steel lunch benches. They remain still and focused on their guest. About half an hour has passed since Deras began.
He challenges the boys to think carefully about their futures. Take control of your destiny, he says, and you can have homes, families and good jobs.
"You're worth more than you realize," he says. "We don't want your lives manipulated by someone else."
Times staff photographer Luis Sinco contributed to this report.