Welcome to the Home of El Salvador's Most Notorious Gangs
Temperatures can reach 100 degrees or higher in these sweaty enclosures. More than 30 men are crammed in each cage.
I n San Salvador, the two main street gangs are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M18). Both were founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by a group of poor, mostly illegal immigrants. Initially their membership consisted almost exclusively of those who had escaped from the civil war in El Salvador. Many of these gang members were deported back to El Salvador after the war ended in 1992, exporting back a newly organised and ruthless gang culture.
For nearly two decades, the gangs have been murdering each other in the most brutal ways possible, while expanding throughout Latin America. In 2011, the murder rate peaked at 15 homicides per day in El Salvador. Last year a truce was negotiated between MS-13 and M18 with the assistance of religious leaders and the government. The aim of the truce was to stem the escalating number of shootings and deaths by focusing on the younger gang members and taking some of the weapons off the streets. According to the gang leaders, the time was right to talk and stop the violence. After the much publicised treaty was signed, the effects were almost instantaneous, and the homicide rate dropped 52 percent in 15 months; however, in early July of this year, tensions boiled over once again and there were 103 killings in the country in a single week, giving Salvadorans a reminder that some things may never change.
Inside the MS-13 cage, gang members hold up copies of the Bible.
Just before that outbreak of violence, I traveled to a rough suburb 20 miles outside San Salvador and spent some time with a police captain and units charged with patrolling this particularly troubled area where both M18 and MS-13 live and operate. I won’t reveal the captain’s name or jurisdiction, for fear he will face retribution for his frankness and the access he granted me. He was generous with his time and taught me a lot about how policing works in a posttruce country; he told me that he was especially proud of how he’d recruited women police officers to deal with domestic and sexual abuse issues, and how he provided outreach and support to victims of such crimes.
On my last day with the captain, I was chatting with him in the police station when he mentioned the severe overcrowding in the Salvadoran prison system. When I pressed him for more information, he offered to show me what he called the “gang cages” and escorted me to the back of the station flanked by four armed guards.
Prisoners take turns sleeping in makeshift hammocks made from their clothing.
In a rancid, sweltering prison yard ringed by a high wall topped with barbed wire sat three cages. They stood about 12 feet wide and 15 feet tall – each crammed full of more than 30 human bodies. M18 and MS-13 each had their own cage, with the third reserved for “common criminals.” They were initially constructed to serve as 72-hour holding cells, but I was told that many of the inmates had been imprisoned in these pens for over a year. Most of their days are spent pulling apart their clothes and using the thread to sew together hammocks, where they sleep stacked on top of one another like cords of wood.
I talked to a one-legged civil-war veteran who said he’d been locked up in the nongang cage for over five months for protesting against the government’s slashing of his medical benefits. In the M18 cage, I met one of the gang bosses who signed the 2012 truce treaty, a man who called himself Henry. Through the bars he spoke to me in hushed tones about his role in helping to disarm his gang of assault weapons. “The deal was that everyone, including the police, put down the assault weapons.
A member of the M18 shows off his tattoos.
I helped round up those guns and oversaw them being melted down. We, the gangs, did that, but the police did not. The other very important thing we are trying to do is educate the youngest kids who are born into a life of gangs. Some of the new gang members are joining at ten years old. We have started Sunday schools, and we have handed out Bibles – both gangs have done that. We are trying to stop the violence and having a faith can help.”
After my 40 minutes in the enclosure, the guards told me to leave. I asked the captain if I could return the next morning to talk to the prisoners further, and he agreed.
The following morning, however, I discovered that the cages were usually off limits to press. The captain told me that no photojournalist had been allowed to see the cages for over ten years, and word of my peek inside had somehow reached the San Salvador police’s press office. They weren’t happy, the captain told me, and apparently were on their way from San Salvador to “talk” to me. The guards had told Henry that I was barred from returning, and because these prisoners aren’t allowed visitors, he got very upset and started threatening them.
Prisoners must rely on their families for food as the police only provide water. Sanitation is almost nonexistent and health issues are commonplace.
My situation was becoming more compromised by the second. The captain even asked me if I could return the pictures I had taken of the cages. I refused. He understood but told me to leave immediately, before the head of the press office arrived. A few minutes later he had calmed down, and we had a friendly chat as he escorted me to my car. He was clearly troubled by the storm brewing but seemed somewhat resigned to it all.
Looking back, I think the reason the captain showed me the cages was because he was simply frustrated with the inhumane conditions that he must preside over on a daily basis, with no hope of the situation improving anytime soon. During most of our discussions, he brought up that there wasn’t even a budget for the inmates’ most basic necessities, like food, the cramped conditions, and the prisoners’ frequent health problems. “We need a full-time doctor here,” he said. “These cages are full and many are sick. Maybe your pictures can help in some way?”
That was the last thing he said to me as I got into the car. Two hours later, I was at the airport and checking in for my flight back to New York City.
All photos by Giles Clarke in conjunction with Getty Images.
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