During the last two decades, Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street Gang, the two major street gangs in El Salvador, have plunged the country into the never ending spiral of fear, brutal violence, killings and death. A member of the 18th Street Gang (M-18) proudly shows off his gang tattoos in San Salvador, El Salvador.
The Mara gangs are called after marabuntas, the carnivorous ants of Central America that destroy all life in their path. However, some sources state the gangs are named for La Mara, a street in San Salvador. Young men, supposed gang members, kneel on the floor handcuffed and detained by Police in San Salvador, El Salvador.
In an effort to avoid violence between the rival groups, the authorities separated the gangs in prisons. But in fact, they have handed over control of the prisons to the gangs. Prisoners have access to cellular phones and computers, they carry out crimes from jail. A Mara Salvatrucha gang graffiti painted on the wall of the prison in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador.
The 2010 United Nations report claims that El Salvador and Honduras have the highest murder rates in the world with 66 and 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. Killings in El Salvador can average 12 to 15 per day. A deadly injured gang member, after being hit by three bullets, is seen lying on an emergency room bed in a state hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Each prison is dedicated to one particular gang. However, Salvadorean government's anti-gang tactic has been mostly ineffective because gang members direct their criminal activities from inside the overcrowded prisons. A corridor of the prison for the Mara Salvatrucha gang members in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador.
The tattoos on the 18th Street Gang member's face provides a visible sign of his voluntary exclusion from the society. It is said that once a gang member has tattoos he can never break free of the gang membership. A former member of the 18th Street Gang (M-18) seen on his way to the church in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Members of Mara Salvatrucha (similarly as their rivals from 18th Street Gang) use a system of tattoo signs for purposes of identification and communication. The Mara Salvatrucha gang members are seen behind the bars of cells in a detention center in San Salvador, El Salvador.
The main source of income for gangs is extortion. All businesses located in the area dominated by a gang have to pay extortion payment, usually 2-5 US dollars per day. Shopkeepers don't go to the police because if they do the gangs will kill them. An armed policeman patrols in the Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador.
18th Street gang members identify themselves with the number 18. They use the number 18 and its variations (XV3, XVIII, 666 or 99) in their graffiti and tattoos. A member of the 18th Street Gang (M-18) shows off his gang tattoos in San Salvador, El Salvador.
The anti-gang force is part of a new security policy, launched by the government in 2013, with a goal to fight directly the gangs and reduce the high level of violence in the country, caused mainly by the gang criminal activities. A policeman from the special anti-gang unit (Unidad Antipandillas) aims rifle at the window during a night raid in Soyapango, a gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Mara gangs (cliques) mark their territories through wall graffiti. “Devil's horns” is one of the most displayed symbols of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). A gang graffiti (“Devil's horns”) painted on the wall in the Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador.
For generations, a small elite wielded power in El Salvador, while half of the population lives in poverty. Kids on the street, often sniffing glue, are easily recruited by Mara gangs because they have no other choice for the future. A young boy sniffs glue to get high while living on the street in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Mara Salvatrucha, nor 18th Street Gang, does not have any single recognized leader. Gangs operate as groups called ‘cliquas’ (cliques) in specific territories. The leaders of cliques are known as ‘palabreros’ (“those who have the word”). A supposed gang member, holding his hands up, is controlled by Police in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Around 9,000 gang members (from both Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street Gang) are currently behind bars in El Salvador, representing a third of the national prison population. Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) play music in the prison of Tonacatepeque, El Salvador.
As the gang members are often tattooed on their chest, back or face, they are targets for the police. Hence some gang members are moving away from the tattoos to operate on the street without being noticed. Armed policemen patrol in the gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Many gang members are prisoners of their neighborhoods, trapped in poverty and the struggle for survival, unable to leave the slums because of police crackdowns and threats from rival gangs. A social war has paralyzed the nation of El Salvador. A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) looks from behind the bars in the prison of Tonacatepeque, El Salvador.

Fear in El Salvador

El Salvador, 2011 – 2014

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”