The British-based photographer Tariq Zaidi took this picture in Chalatenango prison in El Salvador in 2019. At the time, the prison held 1,637 inmates, all of whom were members of the MS-13 gang that has terrorised the country for decades. Zaidi arrived in El Salvador in 2018 and spent eight months negotiating access to the brutal world of MS-13 and its rival, Barrio 18. In the following two years, he visited six maximum security prisons and numerous bloody crime scenes and funeral processions. His aim, he suggests, in his book of the pictures, Sin Salida (No Way Out), was to document the vicious dystopia that parts of El Salvador had become: “When then-President Trump was calling Central American migrant caravans ‘criminals’ and the like, I wanted to explore what kind of life these people were leaving behind.”
The motto of MS-13 is “kill, rape, control”. It is estimated to have used violent extortion against 70% of El Salvador’s businesses. After a dozen years in which the murder rate was higher than any country outside a war zone, President Nayib Bukele, who styles himself as “the world’s coolest dictator”, won power in 2019 on a platform of zero tolerance of gang violence. His authoritarian “territorial control plan”, along with an alleged secret pact with MS-13 leaders, filled the country’s jails to more than triple capacity and dramatically cut the official murder rate.
The overcrowding was endemic at Chalatenango, where prisoners were confined to warehouse-like communal cells strung with a web of hammocks. Tuberculosis ripped through the prison population before Covid and after a new wave of gang violence in 2020 Bukele’s administration closed Chalatenango. For the first time, rival gang members were incarcerated together in the country’s jails. Bukele used his Twitter account to comment on the new policy: “They will be inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang.”