El Salvador is no stranger to violence. It endured a brutal civil war in the 1980s, which lasted for more than a decade. In many ways this history has underpinned the evolution of a terrifying gang culture where extortion and murder have become the norm. In the aftermath of the civil war, US immigration policies hardened. The net result was Salvadorian migrants convicted of crimes were deported back to El Salvador, renewing the cycle of gang culture and undermining the foundations of a fragile and struggling state.
The burial and wake (right) for Jose Luis, an 11 year-old boy who was murdered by members of the La 18 gang. He would play with friends in the park on the border of a demarcation line between La 18 and rival gang MS-13. He was threatened by gang members but continued playing with friends who were later kidnapped by La 18. His two friends escaped, but Jose Luis was beaten, tortured, stabbed and beheaded. His body was left in a ditch and found a few days later.
The murder rate spiked in 2015-2016 at more than 100 homicides per 100,000 residents, well above the second and third highest countries, Honduras and Venezuela, which both had 59 homicides per 100,000 residents (InSightCrime).
Above: The body of Eduardo Castillo Calles, a farmer and former soldier who formed a vigilante group to kill members of MS-13, lies in the autopsy room of the Institute of Legal Medicine. He was shot 13 times. Right: A forensic policewoman stands over a body in San Salvador’s Central Market, one of the busiest locations in the capital. The murder victim was handcuffed behind his back and shot seven times around 10.30 one morning.
The forces involved are at least 60,000 active gang members from the gangs Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (La 18), and the outnumbered 52,000 Salvadoran state officers, consisting of the police, paramilitary and military forces.
MS13 gang members inside their cell at the Chalatenango penal centre. Right: Inmates provide haircuts at the Penal San Francisco Gótera. Far right: MS-13 gang members play a board game in their cell in the Bartolinas Policiales de Lourdes, Colon. Below: An inmate in solitary confinement looks out of his cell at the Penal San Francisco Gótera
About this project, Zaidi writes, It took me two years to make this work. I worked with a fully staffed admin team on the ground in El Salvador. On my behalf, they would write to government authorities, police delegations and public institutions across the country to grant me access to show me what was actually going on at ground level, and more importantly, how they were trying to drive out gangs and financially diminish their control over the territories. Those who visit El Salvador for a few days will see a seemingly normal place. When you start talking to people, you discover the darker side – a total breakdown of trust in society at large, and a people living out each day in absolute fear. The ubiquity of violence is devastating. This is what is so terrifying to other Salvadorans: the extent to which this violence is normalised.
The gangs’ origins can be traced to Salvadorans who fled to the US, and in particular to teens in Los Angeles. Through radicalisation via jail stints for nonviolent crimes, Salvadorans were hardened and turned to violence, establishing the methods and networks associated with MS-13. La 18, in contrast, was formed as the first multiracial, multiethnic gang in the city, and is now a mostly Central American gang, with between 30,000 and 50,000 members in the US.
After the civil war in El Salvador ended in 1992, US immigration policies hardened and migrants who had been convicted of crimes were sent back to El Salvador, bringing gang culture and violence to an already struggling state. Through recruitment, extortion and coercion, the gangs continued to grow in number and influence, holding ever greater control over the country.
Today, El Salvador is a paralysed state. Turf wars have split apart families, made travel impossible and crippled the government. Disappearances are common (the numbers of those disappeared are not counted in homicide statistics, understating the scale of violence) and following up with the police is not recommended – informers and moles are everywhere. If the body is found, burials are held as quickly as possible and funerals are quietly conducted: they have often been targeted for repeat murders.
Inmates stand at the doors to their cells at the Ilopango women’s prison, El Salvador. Most of the inmates are members of MS-13 or La 18. Right, prisoners have their hair cut by other inmates.
The police are always on high-alert and officers wear balaclavas to protect their identities, but attacks on the police are common, including secondary, “double tap” shootings at murder sites. This breakdown of trust has created a uniquely problematic socio-political situation, and helps explain why for many Salvadorans the only answer is migration, usually to the north to Mexico and the US. A large migrant caravan currently at the US’s southern border at Tijuana, Mexico, is composed largely of those fleeing gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras.
San Salvador and the Metropolitan Cathedral, with the volcano of San Vicente in the background, seen from Mirador del Boquerón.
It is difficult for an outsider to understand how much social norms have disintegrated. In many cities, it is impossible to cross the street due to differing gang territory control, entirely cordoning off neighbourhoods and streets. When entering a new neighbourhood, visitors often have to flash lights or roll windows down to indicate allegiance to the gang that controls it, or fear violence.
Clockwise from top left: Oscar, 27, Wilbur, 43, Juan, 31, and Jonathan, 28, photographed at the Chalatenango penal centre, which houses 1,637 inmates, all of whom are part of MS-13.
Elias, 35, a member of La 18, photographed at the Penal San Francisco Gótera.
But the election of a new, young, dynamic president – Nayib Armando Bukele – has brought hope. He created a multi-phase plan which he says will eradicate gangs in El Salvador in three to four years. In June, he launched the $31m (£24m) territorial control plan to heighten police and military presence to drive out gangs and weaken their control over the territories.
Two months in, the Salvadoran police reported more than 5,000 arrests nationally. The plan also involved declaring a state of emergency in the prison system, putting 28 prisons on lockdown by prohibiting visitors, confining inmates to cells, attempting to block all communication networks within the prison and with the outside world through a near-blackout of mobile phone signals, and transferring prisoners to more secure facilities.
He has also created a new anti-corruption body, known as Plan Cuscatlan.
The funeral of Hugo, a police officer, in Santa Ana. His body was found on the street in Chalchuapa. He is survived by his wife and two children, a boy and girl.
Marta, 52, a police officer in Chapeltique, wears a balaclava for fear of gang reprisals.
Bukele has pointed to economic growth as a solution to the rising poverty and unemployment that lead to emigration. He has succeeded in securing pledged development funds from both the US and Mexico – one of many steps he has taken to rekindle El Salvador’s bilateral relationship with the US.
To date, 3,382 people have been reported missing. That is already 200 more than the year before. While the scale of violence in this small central American country is predictable, its future is less certain. For how much longer will the people of El Salvador have to endure fear and murder as the social norm?
A funeral delegation carries the coffin of Douglas Rivera, a 22-year-old leader of MS-13, in Chapeltique municipal cemetery. He was one of four gang members killed by special operations police while hiding out in a jungle camp.
© Tariq Zaidi. All rights reserved.