“Kill. Rape. Control.” This is the motto of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the notorious gang that wields an iron grip on communities across Central America. Known for their brutal violence, MS-13 and its rival, Barrio 18, has catapulted El Salvador’s murder rate to one of the world’s highest. After the state cracked down the gangs fought back, slaughtering 76 people in just four days in 2020. Living under the threat of violence, thousands of Salvadorans have fled their homes for parts unknown in Mexico or the United States, willing to risk it all for the chance of a safer life.
“El Salvador has been grappling with gang violence for decades and its prisons are bursting at the seams,” says British photographer Tariq Zaidi, who traveled across the nation between 2018–2020 to create Sin Salida (Gost Books), a harrowing look at the impact of gang members, police, prisons, murder sites, funerals, and the government’s war against the gangs on Central American nation.
The seeds of Sin Salida (Spanish for “no escape”) were first planted after Zaidi heard then-President Trump warn in a 2018 speech, “At this very moment, large well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards our southern border. Some people call it an invasion. …These are tough people in many cases; a lot of young men, strong men and a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country. …This isn’t an innocent group of people. It’s a large number of people that are tough. They have injured, they have attacked.”
As it turned out, the truth was just the opposite. The caravans were comprised of Central Americans fleeing poverty and gang violence in their homelands. Having lived in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina for nearly four years, Zaidi recognized the harm such brutal propaganda would cause an already besieged group.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Tariq Zaidi first traveled to El Salvador in 2018 and spent eight months building a network of local contacts to establish trust, the very foundation upon which Sin Salida was built. “Everyone talks in hush tones when it’s about the gangs – as no one knows who is listening,” says Zaidi, who explains that the gangs don’t just kill; they also use violence as a form of psychological warfare. Their power comes from hiding in plain sight, and interacting with the community in the way that terrorist cells usually do not.
“This is what makes them so hard to fight: it’s often difficult to know who is and who isn’t a gang member,” Zaidi says. In a nation with an estimated 10% of the country’s 6.4 million population involved in gangs, Zaidi took great care to lay out a plan that would secure access without jeopardizing the safety of his sources. Although he usually works alone or with a fixer, in El Salvador, Zaidi had to work with numerous authorities to gain access to prisons, police departments, and murder sites.
“It often took months to gain access to prisons and governmental offices, and this access was sometimes revoked at the last minute,” says Zaidi. He also met grieving families at crime scenes and morgues. He shares the story of traveling to a poor area outside of San Salvador to attend the wake of a young boy who had been decapitated. The fixer advised Zaidi to put away his camera and simply pay their respects to the family. They then approached gang members, who stood guard over the body, asking to meet the boy’s mother.
“She was small and in her forties. The pain she was in was indescribable. I hugged her as hard as I could and didn’t say a word. I said, ‘I’m really sorry for your son’s passing’. She cried harder and harder. Then her other son came out. He was around 18 years old. I hugged him too. We left to get coffee and cake and brought it back to the house. The gang members said we could go inside. The family was happy we’d come back and invited me to the funeral,” Zaidi says.
“The next day I went back for the funeral and the family asked me to accompany the hearse. I made a lot of pictures with the family and they allowed me to stay a long time. The mother told me to share the story of her murdered son with the whole world outside El Salvador.”
With the second-highest per capita prison population after the United States, El Salvador’s prisons have a capacity of 18,051 but the system currently holds more than 38,000 inmates, operating at 215.2% occupancy. The combination of extreme heat, unsanitary conditions and tuberculosis made it a death trap before COVID-19. What’s more, the prisons provide a foundation for ongoing gang activity.
“According to the former Minister of Justice and Security, Rogelio Rivas, incarcerated gang leaders are responsible for ordering 80 per cent of all attacks in the country. Furthermore, in some cases the state has completely lost even physical control over prisons, whose gang leaders dictate the distribution of meals and who are allowed to enter,” says Tariq Zaidi, who visited six prisons and three holding cells at police stations during his travels through El Salvador. The prisons were the only place Zaidi could meet, speak with, and photograph gang members for Sin Salida, providing a face an a voice to those only known for the damage they cause.
With the June 2019 election of President Nayib Bukele, there is finally hope as he has introduced a reform strategy to extirpate gangs in El Salvador in under 4 years. Under his leadership, the murder rate has dropped to its lowest since 1992 from its height of 17.6 murders per day in 2015, to an average of 3.6 homicides per day in October.
With Sin Salida, Zaidi examines living in a world of violence and fear, the likes of which most have never known. “When you talk to families who have experienced this violence—murders, disappearances, extortion, death threats—you understand that most people live out their days in fear,” he says. “My hope with this work is to amplify the voices of those Salvadorans who fight for basic human rights, security and a safer life for their children and families.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Sin Salida, Tariq Zaidi, published by Gost Books, 69 colour images, 160 pages, £35.00/$50.00.