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Street gangs and the overcrowded prisons of El Salvador


El Salvador
Members of Salvadoran street gangs or pandillas crammed into a jail outside San Salvador, the capital. (Giles Clarke/Getty Images)


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.



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Although I agree that prisons in el Salvador are terrible but you don't want this type of prisoners in your backyard. Being from El Salvador and suffered the consequences on the hands on the gangs there, I know the situation better in el Salvador. My nephew was a dentist that was being extorted, kidnapped and whose body was never found. According to investigations and mobile records, it was found that everything was planned from one of those prisons by a gang leader, who controls most of the kidnappings from there with the help of gangsters and top officials and corrupt police officers. I am glad that Giles Clark is alive but i think as a foreigner reporter, he's naive like the rest of people in Canada who never lived there. Comparing el Salvador and Canada is like comparing apples and oranges. As resident of Canada I can see the differences and trust me. If you ask me or offer one, ten millions of dollars if I would live or move back to el Salvador; my answer would be absolutely not and you. Can prove or test me. Please feel free to edit this but don't lose the intended message.

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