The Deadly Gangs of El Salvador

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • Salvadorian Special Police during a night raid to capture gang members operating in the Panchimalco district of San Salvador.

    Since 2001, photographer Moises Saman has concentrated on covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as projects in other political hotspots around the globe.

  • A suspected gang member is arrested in his home by Salvadorian Special Police during a night raid in San Salvador’s Panchimalco district.

  • Salvadorian Special Police during an anti-gang operation to capture a Calle 18 gang member in the Las Palmas section of San Salvador.

  • A member of the Calle 18 gang wanted for murder sits handcuffed in the backyard of his girlfriend’s home after being arrested by Salvadorian Special Police during a night raid in San Salvador’s Las Palmas section.

  • A female member of the Calle 18 gang found raped and murdered – purportedly by rival gangs – by the side of the road on the outskirts of San Salvador.

  • Members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) serving time inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador. The Mara controls whole sections of this prison.

  • Incarcerated members of the MS13 gang in the infamous Chelatenango penitentiary.

    In addition to being shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards, in 2008 photographer Moises Saman’s work from El Salvador received special mention at the Overseas Press Club Awards and was part of a portfolio placed 3rd in the POYi Magazine Photographer of the Year Award. He has won several other major awards, notably for his work from Afghanistan and Haiti.

  • An MS13 gang member throws gang signs – used for indentification and communication – inside the Chelatenango prison.

    Photographer Moises Saman was born in Peru in 1974 and grew up in Barcelona, before moving to the US to study at California State University. After graduating with a degree in Communications, Moises moved to became a Staff Photographer at New York Newsday, where he worked from 2000-07.

    Sources: 1, 2

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Karl Fabricius
Karl Fabricius
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History