During the last two decades, Central America has become the deadliest region in the world that is not at war. According to the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, in an average year between 2004 and 2009, more people per capita were killed in El Salvador than in Iraq. Due to the criminal activities of Mara Salvatrucha (abbreviated as Mara, MS-13 or MSX3) and 18th Street Gang (also known as M-18, Pandilla 18), the two major street gangs in El Salvador, and due to their unmerciful turf battles, the tiny country on the Pacific coast has fallen into the never ending spiral of violence, killings and death.
The Mara gangs have their roots in the 1980s, when Salvadorean civil war refugees formed criminal groups on the streets of Los Angeles (Pico Union neighborhood) to compete the Mexican gangs that reigned the local underworld. In the 1990s, the US authorities have deported hundreds of ‘Mareros’ back to El Salvador. The ferocious gang culture has quickly spread throughout the country, economically and socially destroyed by the brutal civil war.
Today, there are around 25,000 active gang members in El Salvador with another 9,000 in prison. Maras are sub-divided into pandillas (sets) at a regional level and ‘cliquas’ (cliques), units operating in a neighbourhood or a street. A gang's organization is based on a strict set of rules and cruel rituals. Gang members (called ‘pandilleros’ or ‘mareros’) have to obey the word of a gang leader (‘palabrero’). Disobedience may result in corporal punishment, or even execution for a serious offense. Gang members have been known to tattoo the gang related symbols on much of their body, from head to toe. The tattoos (gang logos, especially the numbers) not only serve as gang identification but they may reveal the hidden information from the life of a tattooed man. Teardrops under an eye may represent a number of the dead enemies, e.g. It is said that once a gang member has tattoos he can never break free of the gang membership.
The main source of income for gangs is extortion. Shops, beauty salons, bus drivers, and all other businesses located in the area dominated by a gang have to pay extortion payment, usually 2-5 US dollars per day. Besides, Maras organize the street-level distribution of drugs, they are linked to human trafficking, kidnapping, murders and drug smuggling for the Mexican drug cartels in the last years. Salvadorean governments have always responded to the Mara's crimes and violence with a tough anti-gang policy and thousands of gang members got jailed. However, it hasn't stopped the gangs. Corruption at the highest levels of government has allowed many gang leaders to direct their criminal activities from inside the overcrowded prisons.
Most of the gang members originate from the poor shanty towns. Abject living conditions in the suburbs of San Salvador, the lack of education and poverty allow the young people living there to choose only between two futures: with Mara Salvatrucha or with Mara 18. Kids as young as 8 or 9 are recruited directly by their older siblings, friends or family relatives. Twenty years after the devastating civil war, a new, social war has paralyzed the nation of El Salvador.
Although the leaders of both Mara gangs had reached a truce, announced recently by the local newspaper El Diario de Hoy, it is unlikely that Maras would break with their activities.
The fear and pain rule in the streets of El Salvador.
Photography by Jan Sochor
Music by El Negro ft El Gorra – “Me hicieron prisionero”