SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The meeting took place in a prison that is home and headquarters to the notorious and violent MS-13 street gang in El Salvador. Some of the gang’s highest-ranking leaders, known as La Ranfla, were present. They had an important decision to make: whether to kill a fellow gang member.
A couple of mid-level leaders - El Baxter and El Medias - at that meeting suspected that the gang member in question, El Fénix, was something unforgivable, according to the laws of the MS-13. He was gay.
El Baxter and El Medias, like El Fénix, belonged to a clica — an MS-13 cell— called San Cocos. When they went to the Ranfla, the top leadership, for permission, they assured them that they had evidence to show El Fénix was gay. An investigation they’d conducted into him showed that he was trying to “ruin’ other homeboys. That he was trying to have sex with them inside the prison.
The two gang members said they saw El Fénix touch the genitals of other gang members without any provocation while they watched television together inside the cell. El Fénix had the rank of “program runner” - he was the head of a group of leaders of other gang cells. His rank was only below that of the Ranfla bosses.
To confirm their suspicions, El Baxter and El Medias even set a trap for El Fénix. They allowed another gang member to receive a blowjob from him while the others secretly watched.
El Croock, one of the leaders at the meeting that day, said they would have to kill him.
“If you guys are sure that this is true, then there's no problem with killing him. Just let us know and please don’t kill him with a knife,” he said, according to transcripts in court documents seen by VICE World News.
It was December 2012 and at that time the gangs had agreed to a truce with the Salvadoran government - prison benefits in exchange for reducing murders throughout the country. The gang was on its best behaviour.
Two weeks after that meeting, on January 8 2013, they ushered out all the gang members held in sector three of the prison, except for El Fénix. Ten MS-13 gang members entered his cell, including several leaders of the Ranfla.
El Croock subdued El Fénix with a chokehold, while other gang members held him by the arms and legs, a witness testified in a court in El Salvador. Then, El Baxter and another gang leader kicked him in the stomach. El Fénix resisted, but El Croock gave the order to put a plastic bag over his head until he suffocated.
When he was dead, the gang members took his body to the second floor of sector three and threw it down onto the first floor. By this point, the body was oozing blood from the head and face. His two former gang mates then rushed took him to the infirmary, shouting that he had fallen from the roof while he hung his washing out in the sun.
This story was told before the Salvadoran courts in December 2019 by a gang member who decided to betray the group in exchange for a reduced sentence for his role in the murder. The case of El Fénix is not unique, but the visibility of openly gay gang members in El Salvador was practically non-existent until now.
“For a man to love another man is unnatural,” said Giovanni, an ex-MS-13 gang member imprisoned in the isolation sector at the San Francisco Gotera prison in Morazan, eastern El Salvador. Giovanni is gay, and he is in love with another former member of the rival gang, Barrio 18. He is one of the main characters in Unforgivable (Imperdonable is its Spanish title), a film by the Spanish director Marlén Viñayo who is based in El Salvador.
The film portrays the reality of the few gang members who identify themselves as gay in Salvadoran prisons, and shows images never seen before. Two men, one from MS-13 and the other from Barrio 18, caressing and kissing, locked in tender exchanges.
“People wondered, how could this exist? How could I tell a story in which tenderness was one of the main manifestations of the film? Since no one goes to a prison expecting to find tenderness. You have to be crazy to go to jail hoping to find love and those things more associated with the good citizens of a country,” said Carlos Martínez, screenwriter of Unforgivable, in an interview with VICE World News.
The movie isn’t just a love story, but also one of suffering and the consequences of being gay within the gang.
“At first, it seemed impossible that they would speak on camera. But it was the exact opposite. We explained to them every day that the film was going to be released in the country, other countries of the world, and also on the internet. One of them did not want to reveal his identity but not because of the gang, but because he did not want his mother to find out. The rest told us that we’re already carrying two death sentences, for quitting the gang and for being gay," said Viñayo.
The gay inmates of the San Francisco Gotera prison were rejected and threatened with death by their gang when they came out as gay. But because they had converted to evangelicalism, they weren’t killed. But eventually the church banished them too, and they were sent to a cell called “El Zope”, so named after the vulture - a bird of prey.
That putrid and tiny cell, according to director Viñayo, was their only safe space inside the prison. “At the beginning of the film project, one of the inmates said that the isolation cell was the only place where they felt free. And it was one of the things that struck me the most. How is it possible that these people feel free in a cell that is 3 ft by 5 ft?! But this is the only space where they can be who they really are. In other sectors they were exposed to rape and humiliation. It makes sense,” said Viñayo.
Unforgivable is currently the only Salvadoran documentary film to win several awards at international film festivals such as the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Guanajuato International Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. That helped it get as far as the shortlist of the Oscars this year.
The film highlights the cruelty with which gays are treated by evangelical churches that initially embrace gang members inside the prisons, and a retrograde prison system, with a total ignorance of gender identity.
“There was a psychologist who, in an attempt to do a scientific test to identify if an inmate was gay or not, asked inmates if they liked poetry or plants,” recalls Martínez.
The survival of the inmates of El Zope relies on their staying there. If they leave their part of the prison, let alone the prison itself, they’re likely to be killed. Their story is an exception to the rule - and a unique look at an unseen dynamic within Central Americas violent mara gangs.
The contempt for homosexuality in the gangs makes it impossible to know how common it is, said Luis Enrique Amaya, an El Salvadoran investigator. “Homosexuality with the gangs that is largely kept secret.
“But the punishment is usually the same. Usually, the punishment is death.”