The Deadly Gangs of El Salvador

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Image: © Moises Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Awards 2009

Moises Saman Gangs of El Salvador Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) Gang Members Serving Time Inside Chelatenango Prison

All images: © Moises Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Awards 2009

Mara Savatrucha, or MS-13, is one the most notorious gangs in the world. Yet MS-13 and other gangs such as Calle 18 originated just decades ago among the Salvadorian immigrant community of Los Angeles. Soon the US authorities began deporting gang members back to El Salvador, exporting LA gang culture to a country rife with weapons from civil war and sparking an explosion in vicious gang-related crime. MS-13 currently has over 50,000 members in the US, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Cities like San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, experience some of the highest murder rates in the world.


Image: © Moises Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Awards 2009

Snoopy, a senior member of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and one of the gang leaders inside the Ciudad Barrios prison, a notorious maximum security facility for incarcerated MS-13 members.

In El Salvador’s penitentiaries, rival gangs are kept segregated to avoid riots, but the prisons remain hotbeds of violence as well as recruiting grounds for the deadly gangs. Taken in 2007 by award-winning photojournalist Moises Saman, these photographs go inside the facilities to give a sense of what life is like within their walls. The series also goes onto the streets to document the anti-gang activities of Salvadorian Special Police, with powerful and poignant results.

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Image: © Moises Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Awards 2009

An MS-13 gang member bares his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison.

Many members cover themselves in tattoos. Common markings include “MS” and other symbols to identify individual factions or “cliques”.

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