Far-Flung: Gangs of El Salvador

Tariq Zaidi has spent a large part of his career covering the gang violence in what was once the murder capital of the world: El Salvador.

press a policeman during patrol

Tariq Zaidi has spent a large part of his career covering the gang violence in what was once the murder capital of the world: El Salvador.

When photographer Tariq Zaidi was in El Salvador documenting gang violence, he was advised to carry a weapon. “If we get in a fire fight, they’ll rape the female journalist in the car and chop off her arms and legs before they get to you. Put down your camera and take this gun,” he was told. It was a statement that laid bare just how normalised extreme violence has become in this part of the world.

Tariq had joined a local mayor and his team on a patrol one night as they cruised round crime hotspots looking for signs of gang activity. After donning bulletproof vests, a call came in from another team to say they’d detected a gang nearby and were ready to close in. As they set off in pursuit of the suspects, the mayor said to Tariq: “This is what we have to do to keep our community gang free.”

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In El Salvador, gang violence pervades virtually every facet of society. According to estimates, roughly 500,000 Salvadorans (10% of the country’s 6.4 million population) are involved in gangs, either through direct participation or through coercion and extortion by relatives. The country has had among the highest murder rates in the world and the relentless violence has paralysed the economy and society. No wonder then that thousands of Salvadorans have been forced to flee in recent years – in the hope of a safer life elsewhere.

“When then-President Trump was calling Central American migrant caravans ‘criminals’ and the like, I wanted to explore what kind of life these people were leaving behind,” says Tariq of his project Sin Salida. “I wanted to show the world just how dystopian El Salvador has become, and how the extent, scale and savagery of violence is unlike anything most of us have ever known.”

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The history of El Salvador’s violence can be traced to the country’s brutal civil war between 1979-92. During this time at least 75,000 people were killed, while others were victims of forced disappearance or displaced. Many young Salvadorans found refuge in Los Angeles, where they formed gangs to protect themselves against already established gangs in the city.

Later, many of them ended up serving jail time for nonviolent crimes, and it was from US prisons that they picked up the various extortion techniques associated with the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18, El Salvador’s two main gangs. When US immigration policies hardened after the war, there was a mass deportation of Salvadorans back to El Salvador and a new kind of civil war broke out – this time involving the authorities and the two rival gangs which continue to spread fear and influence right across the region.

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“It can be difficult for people who have never visited the country to understand just how much social norms have disintegrated,” says Tariq. “In many cities, it is impossible to cross the street due to differing gang territory control, entirely cordoning off neighbourhoods and streets. When entering a new neighbourhood, visitors often have to flash lights or roll windows down to indicate allegiance to the gang that controls it, or fear violence.”

Before visiting El Salvador for the first time in 2018, Tariq had lived in South America for four years and travelled extensively across both South and Central America. The idea to start a new long-term project was already on his mind in early 2018, so Tariq spent the eight months prior to his trip gaining the trust of local contacts and liaising with a team of experts on the ground. This pre-planning was vital as they would negotiate access to the places he wanted to photograph – a time-consuming process which even if access was granted, was occasionally revoked at the last minute.

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“Even after the many months it took to gain access to prisons, morgues and government centres (sites usually not opened to photojournalists), it often took much more time and energy to convince people to let me photograph them,” explains Tariq. “But many of the rewards came with this, too. I met many mothers, friends and family members of murder victims in their deepest moments of grief and suffering, and tried to be there as much as I could. Some told me to take photos to tell the world what was going on in their country.”

Through his photographs, Tariq takes us into those places usually hidden from public view: the morgues, murder sites, prisons and private funerals, exposing the cyclical nature of violence in the country, as well as the loss and grief that it inevitably brings in its wake. From a mortician tenderly combing the hair of a homicide victim in preparation for a wake, to the claustrophobia-inducing images of inmates packed inside a prison cell, his photos provide an unflinching yet sensitive insight into the deep-cut violence, fear and pain that infiltrates these communities.

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As expected, Tariq faced all kinds of challenges while making the work. “Some were simply logistical, like the fact that police would block access to photojournalists at murder sites, so my team and I had to trawl WhatsApp and Twitter to reach crime scenes before police did,” he says. Often, after police and medical teams had removed a body from a murder scene, they would approach Tariq and warn him to leave immediately as it wasn’t safe to hang around any longer.

In fact, there were few moments while working on the project that Tariq felt totally safe. “Beating the police to murder sites often meant coming across people who may well have been gang members, and of being in unsafe or ‘hot’ neighbourhoods in the middle of the night,” he says.

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It’s the notoriously brutal methods of violence employed by Salvadoran gangs that distinguish them from other groups and which make the risks very real. “The gangs don’t just kill civilians or other gang members, they mutilate and maim to strike fear,” says Tariq. “Gangs are also a part of everyday life in ways that terrorist organisations often are not. They extort and control neighbourhoods, and hide in plain sight. This is what makes them so hard to fight: it’s often difficult to know who is and who isn’t a gang member.”

In El Salvador, the repercussions for those who step on the wrong side of the gangs are common knowledge and perhaps the hardest part of this project, Tariq says, is the fact that many of the things he saw, heard and experienced will remain forever private. “This is simply to protect the people who had the confidence of sharing their intimate stories and experience with me – and are still very much in danger of some sort,” he explains. “I promised to protect them as much as I could and many asked not to be quoted, named or photographed.”

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For an outsider, it is hard to fathom the true scale of violence in El Salvador and the extent to which the gangs dominate society. Those who visit the country for a short period might witness something like normality, but Tariq says that once you begin talking to people you uncover a darker reality: “a total breakdown of trust in society at large, and people living out each day in absolute fear … This is what is so terrifying to other Salvadorans: the extent to which this violence is normalised.” 

Although the government has achieved some success in reducing murder rates from their peak of 17 murders a day in 2015, to two murders a day by March 2020, a surge of violence in early 2020 proved just how volatile the country still is, and how much work is needed to eradicate gang violence for good.

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The title of Tariq’s book Sin Salida – which translates to ‘No Way Out’ – encapsulates the way gang violence is entrenched into Salvadoran society, and how once initiated into a gang it can be near-impossible to escape. “Young people grow up in war-like conditions, and are often socialised through and into the gang, beginning for MS-13 with a 13-second beating,” says Tariq. “The ubiquity of violence is devastating to regular psychological development.” Indeed, it is the same brutality that often drives people to migrate across borders in search of better lives. 

“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. 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.”

You can follow more of Tariq’s work on Instagram (@tariqzaidiphoto), Facebook (@tariqzaidiphotography) and his website www.tariqzaidi.com/.


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