The tiny Central American country of El Salvador has a big problem. Since the US deported thousands of Salvadorians affiliated with the notorious Los Angeles gang MS-13 back in the ’90s, crime in El Salvador has skyrocketed. Murder rates are some of the highest in the world, and alongside Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador is considered the epicenter for gang crime and gang violence. Despite several government attempts to crack down on the gangs, murder rates remain unbelievably high. In 2012, for example, 66 people out of every 100,000 inhabitants were murdered. That’s three times the murder rate of Mexico, a country not unfamiliar with murder and gang violence itself.
Two of the most notorious gangs – or ‘maras’ as they are known in Spanish – in El Salvador are the Barrio 18 and their arch-rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha. Barrio 18, also known as Calle 18, 18th Street Gang, La18 or Mara-18, originated in Los Angeles in the 1990s. When its members were caught by the US authorities and deported, they quickly took over a Central American gang that had originated in Mexico, and their influence and violence soon spread to El Salvador and the aforementioned Honduras and Guatemala, as well as Belize.
Like Barrio 18, Mara Salvatrucha also originated from the ashes of Los Angeles street gangs. It too spread quickly to Central America, and the two gangs soon found themselves as rivals and eventually sworn and bitter enemies.
The violence between Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha soon escalated, with robberies, drug running, shootings and even child prostitution happening on an almost industrial scale. In 2002, the El salvador government launched a crackdown on the gangs, even going so far as to send out death squads to hunt down and straight up kill gang members. This resulted in a significant drop in crime, and an eventual truce in 2012 that lasted for two years.
When the truce ended in 2014, sparked by turf wars erupting across the country, recorded crime rose by 56%. This makes El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
The El Salvador government estimates that there are at least 25,000 active gang members in the country, 9,000 of whom currently reside in prison. In 2004, the government took the decision to segregate members of Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha in separate prisons, as violence between rival prisoners and towards prison staff had reached epidemic proportions. This came back to bite the authorities when the prisons effectively became headquarters for the gangs themselves. With prison authorities powerless to stop them, both the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha gangs ran huge criminal operations from both inside and outside their prisons.
That’s why the El Salvador government has decided to reverse the segregation and mix these sworn enemies back in together again. This has recently happened to the inmates of Izalco prison, formerly a stronghold of Barrio 18.
They were taken in cuffs and marched on to waiting buses, ready to be taken away to San Francisco Gotera penitentiary.
San Francisco Gotera penitentiary is home to members of Mara Salvatrucha, and this incendiary move has been seen by many as a way to finish the prison gangs once and for all.
Here we see some of the gang members on the buses as a heavily-armed officer watches on.
No chances were taken with these dangerous men. Stripped down to their shorts, cuffed and linked arm in arm, they were escorted to the buses.
They were forced to remove all but their shorts in case they attempted to sneak weapons on to the buses.
Secruity for the operation was, of course, extremely high. Armed officers guarded the buses as the gangs were led on board.
Many believe that by herding the rivals together, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha will tear each other apart for control of the prison, eliminating many gang members along the way and reducing both the power and the membership of both gangs.
This dog-eat-dog scenario was hinted at by the country’s prisons director Rodil Hernandez, who told press that the two gangs would be locked up together in high security wings and completely isolated from the outside world.
It remains to be seen what the result of herding the prisoners together will be.
One thing’s for sure. When these two gangs finally face each other in their new home together, blood is going to flow.