Few gangs in the world can match the sheer brutality of El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha. An entire prison dedicated to housing them exists, with even the police keeping out. One photo-journalist had the cojones to go in and tell their story.
The Penas Ciudad is a maximum security facility in southern El Salvador. The photojournalist, Adam Hinton, says it was built to house 800 inmates, but now houses well over 2,500. Despite expectations that the place might be rundown and mismanaged, the gang actually does a pretty good job of keeping things together and runs the place practically on its own.
This is not necessarily a prison that would deter a would-be criminal from committing a crime. There are beds – actually flimsy mattresses – scattered about everywhere, with various sheets and rugs acting as partitions between the living quarters, which don’t even resemble cells, but rather some indoor camping arrangement. There are almost no facilities resembling anything you’d expect from a government-run institution, merely a Spartan gym with a few weights. The pale brick walls are covered with graffiti everywhere.
But Mara Salvatrucha has its own priorities. It has “organized a bakery, basic rehabilitation and are even left to run the hospital,” Hinton says.
“As you enter the prison, you soon realize that there are no guards around,” Hinton explains.“They only stay on the outside and let the gang run the joint… On hand to help the guards are the army who man most of the sentry points.
“For almost a year now, there has been a truce between the main gangs in El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18 Street, or B18, gang. As the leaders of Mara Salvatrucha are mainly incarcerated at the prison it has become a focus of the [gangs’] negotiations.”
In the photos Hinton takes, one can see all the markings that distinguish a Mara Salvatrucha member from others: among them are profuse tattoos over almost the entire body, including the face and skull, which give the gang an especially menacing look.
There is clearly no going back for these people – their entire life is dedicated to this brotherhood. The markings often feature the name of the gang, or MS-13 for short, together with crucifixes and various other writing. ‘Devil horns’ are also a thing with Mara Salvatrucha.
It is said the tattoos feature a list of past criminal achievements.
The gang members don’t have an infinite number of things they can do with their time, other than work out and sometimes play chess and partake in other activities allowed them.
Their cells appear to be their entire lives, decorated with portraits of friends killed, sometimes religious scribbles and various other inscriptions and drawings.
For most of them, their life is mostly in prison.
“The vast majority of the inmates are from the Barrios or slums. In El Salvador this is a place without hope or opportunity and the gang is the only real option. If the authorities catch you this is the place they literally dump you and forget about you – every inmate is made to feel just like that,”Hinton tells The Independent.
MS-13 may not be the most wealthy or influential gangs in the world (this isn’t the Yakuza), but it has garnered a reputation for being one of the world’s most brutal and merciless, killing anyone – women and children included.