San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Spanish Photographer Captures Lives of Salvadoran Gangsters

MADRID – Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz says her portraits of tattoo-covered gangbangers in Salvadoran prisons are meant to draw attention to “a social calamity that is devastating Central American youth.”

“I hope they’re useful; that’s why I did them,” the photographer said in an interview at the Casa America in Madrid during last week’s opening of her exhibition portraying dozens of young members of the Central American gangs known as “maras.”

Muñoz had heard of these Central American gangs before, but began to take more interest in their individual members as a result of a report on the subject. She asked herself what society is doing at the beginning of this century that can make part of its youth, El Salvador’s in this case, live such violent lives?

The photographer was fascinated by the fact that mara gangsters use their bodies covered with tattoos “as a book telling the story of their lives,” just like some Ethiopian tribes she had photographed “that turn their back on progress.”

The photographer wanted to be a witness to this reality and went to prisons all around El Salvador where members of the two biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, are kept prisoners.

Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, with most of its members young Salvadorans whose parents fled their nation’s civil war for the United States. Because many of the gangsters were born in El Salvador, they were subject to deportation when rounded up during crackdowns in California in the 1990s.

Sent back “home” to a land they barely knew, they formed gangs in San Salvador that spread throughout the small nation and to neighboring countries in Central America, where membership is now counted in the tens, or even hundreds of thousands and gangsters are engaged in murder, drug dealing, kidnapping and people smuggling.

The result of Muñoz’s foray into El Salvador’s hellish prisons is a series of largescale portraits in which mara members appear proud and defiant, their bodies profusely tattooed and bearing scars from their violent past.

With these images, Muñoz attempts to communicate what she has seen: “a phenomenon that feeds on poverty, on broken homes where the mother is the provider with an average monthly wage of $100 to $150, while the sneakers they wear cost $200.”

In many places in El Salvador, Muñoz said,“the kids live in the streets, they don’t go to class, they have no ideals.” It is these surroundings, she added, that nurture the organized crime that uses them.

She tells how she decided to take her cameras to the jails where the maras were because she wanted to use the privilege photography offers her “to report what is happening.”

“It is hell for everyone,” she said, but hastened to add that she does believe in the positive side of their lives and that they can and should be reinserted into society while there is still time.

Muñoz believes that “as long as there is hope, while the chance exists to live decently and progress, there is no need to depend on these tribes.”


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