How do you get access to an inhumane El Salvadorian gang prison? We talked shop with British photojournalist Giles Clarke about his reporting in Central America.
If you were as gobsmacked as we were the first time you saw British photojournalist Giles Clarke’s images of El Salvador's gang prisons, you’d understand why we put one on the cover of our Hot Box Issue. The conditions are inhumane: 30 men shoved into a cage about the size of a freshman dorm room to await trial often for months at a time.
What might not jump out at you is the grinding journalistic work it takes to get access to this sort of thing. So we had VICE UK managing editor Bruno Bayley talk shop with Giles over a beer in London. They had such a good time, however, that neither of them particularly remembered their conversation, so Bruno and Giles corresponded over email this week to review. You can find Giles’s story and the rest of August’s issue of VICE online here.
VICE: Describe the days leading up to finding the cages. What did you see and shoot? Who did you meet?
Giles Clarke: I was in El Salvador with Nina Lakhani, a freelance journalist from the UK who was covering the 15-month-old “gang truce,” which was a brittle agreement between Barrio 18 and MS-13, to say the least. We began by meeting politicians, human rights groups, and “reformed” gang members who were all working to promote the truce by providing alternative ways of life for young people.
After a few days in San Salvador itself, I went out to a gang “hotspot,” a suburb where the gangs live side by side and are separated by the town square. I spent an afternoon in the square taking pictures with a couple of local contacts and decided to visit the local police station to see how the truce had affected them. I asked if I could speak to someone of authority about the situation in the town.
I went on a ride-along with the police on patrols. Over the next couple of days, I went back to the town for a few more patrols and got closer to the captain, who eventually showed me the cages. While at the police station, I noticed that plates of food were being carried through the front lobby to a corridor in the back. I assumed it was for the guards.
So how did you go from interviewing media-ready politicians and NGOs to getting to see something that clearly authorities would want to hide?
In this case, it was a combination of work, patience, luck, and connections in terms of getting access. I was fortunate to have met a sympathetic police captain who gave me access. I had tried official channels and was not given permission to shoot inside prisons. The authorities obviously prefer no pictures, given the conditions the prisoners are kept in. Also these cages were at the back of a provincial police station 20 miles from San Salvador. There is gang violence all over Latin America, so I assume there are "pits" like this everywhere.
Do you think this could affect your chances of working in the region again, as far as the police or government? And do you hope that this exposure might force a review of this situation by the police?
I don't know. I can't worry about what the possible consequences of pictures like these might have on me personally. Of course, I hope that it forces a judicial review of the incarceration methods being used—these men are being treated like animals and yet have not been on trial. They are simply made to wait—for over 18 months in some cases—for a court date and are given no access to legal consultation. I hope that changes. Wouldn't you?
Have you had similarly fortunate breaks before?
I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I had no idea there were cages at the back of the police station. I was talking to the captain for a few days. That got me in there, I guess. He wanted me to see them. After my time with the prisoners, we went back to this office and he poured frustration at the lack of resources he has in coping with over 100 men in a caged courtyard. He wants a doctor to be on call and is incenced at the sluggish justice system. He's been at this station for 17 years, and he says things are only getting worse. I guess that's why he let me in.
The deeper one goes into a story, the larger the likelihood that something interesting will appear. Whether it be a straightforward portrait or running for days in gangland. I like to think that hunting for pictures comes easier when one has tried to fully explore the story in depth.
Did it help that you were traveling with another journalist?
In the last three years I have made a point of being alone out in the field. It helps me get to where I need to go. Of course, I need low-key protection in places, but I find working alone gives me the ability to swing whichever direction at times such as in El Salvador. Occasionally I work with writers or other journalists, but that can get frustrating as it brings in the element of deciding on the safety of others and so on. Ideally I assess the situation and if it’s dangerous, I figure the best way to get the strongest images without pissing anyone off and getting myself shot.
The gang members you spoke to in the cages, did they seem genuine about their truce? And how did that compare with your impression of the police's integrity as far as the truce goes?
I know that the majority of the population want to see gang members locked up and left to rot forever. And I understand that, but I have learned in my travels that many of these prisoners are treated as political pawns. No doubt there is guilt and many might deserve to be locked away, but I have to question the whole judicial system when I see these conditions and especially when a fed-up police captain (who is risking his job and pension) opens up to me.
The issue here is that the gangs have made a turn in a new direction and they want people to know about that. They are trying to be better and we all have to respect that. It is a systemic problem in the judicial operations of the country when politicians and lawmakers bemoan the violence but do nothing to help those poor young men in areas with no employment. The overcrowded prisons become breeding grounds for new recruits and without reform now, there can be no good outcome.
You left the country shortly after seeing the gang cages, right? Was that because you felt like authorities might confiscate your footage because of what you saw?
When I was talking to one of the prisoners through the bars—a gang boss named Henry, a.k.a. El Sucre—the guards behind me became more and more nervous and the captain told me we should go. I turned to the captain and said, “No problem,” but I asked if I could come back tomorrow with a tape recorder, because I wanted to continue the interview.
From that moment on, things went downhill fast. Apparently when I left, the guards (not the captain) told Henry that I would not be coming back. They were fucking with him basically. Then Henry went into a rage and threatened the guards and their families. The captain realized that things were getting out of hand and called headquarters in San Salvador for replacement guards. They sent down the Head of the Police Press Department instead, and another official. I went back the next morning, and there were extra armed guards at the station entrance. The captain made me wait half an hour in the lobby. I noticed all the guards had been changed. The captain then saw me and told me that it was dangerous for me to be there. El Sucre’s influence was powerful around this area and although there was no reason for me to be worried about him, the captain did say that “the authorities were on their way over and they might cause you some problems.” So I thought, Best to get the fuck out.
More from the Hot Box Issue: