Street gangs and the overcrowded prisons of El Salvador
It is no secret that the Central American republic of El Salvador vies with neighbouring Honduras for the distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world.
In El Salvador’s case, the violence is mostly linked to turf battles between two large street gangs or pandillas, one named Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the other called Calle 18 (also known as Barrio 18). Both gangs originated among latino immigrants in California in the 1980s and then reverse-engineered themselves back to Central America.
A year ago, Salvadoran politicians and church leaders managed to help broker a truce between the two groups, and the murder rate promptly dropped from an average of 15 killings a day to about half that. Lately, the truce seems to have frayed, and the toll of death is back on the rise.
Earlier this summer, writer-photographer Giles Clarke traveled to the country and managed to strike up an acquaintance with a police captain in charge of a men’s jail just outside the capital, San Salvador. The jail is now mainly occupied by gang members who are being kept in shockingly inhumane conditions, crammed into small holding cages that are apparently intended for brief periods of incarceration. However, the men seem to be kept there for long periods of time.
Entitled “Prison Pit,” Clarke’s account of his journey and his many disturbing photos of the jail’s interior appear on the U.S. website vice.com, which bills itself as an “online den of nefarious activities, investigative journalism, and enlightening documentaries.”
The text and photos can be found here.
More of Clarke's photos, and a Daily Mail account of El Salvador's troubles, can be found here.
Clarke concludes he was given access to the jail because the police captain was genuinely troubled by the conditions in which the men were being kept and hoped that something might come of the exposure.
“We need a full-time doctor here,” the policeman says. “These cages are full and many are sick. Maybe your pictures can help in some way?”
Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.