san salvador

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EL SALVADOR. San Salvador. 2015.

“Since we were children, we have witnessed these scenes–scenes that never end, that come every day. There are deaths, bodies thrown out, decapitations,” says Marvin González, 32, who leads a faction of Mara Salvatrucha in the town of Ilopango, a few miles east of the capital, San Salvador. “We are killing among poor people. It’s a war without sense.”

Mara Salvatrucha got its start on the streets of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. El Salvador was then riven by a brutal civil war, with leftist guerrillas fighting a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Thousands of young people fled to take refuge in California. To defend themselves there against established Mexican-American and African-American gangs, they formed Mara Salvatrucha. 

When the guerrillas laid down their weapons in 1992, the U.S. deported many Mara Salvatrucha prisoners. Back home, the gang members began to play out the Los Angeles street war in Central America.The recent surge in killings has become a problem for the U.S. Gang violence has prompted many young people in Central America to flee their homes, leading to U.S. authorities’ detaining record numbers of unaccompanied migrant children crossing Mexico’s border with the U.S. last year. 

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has promised a renewed offensive on gangs, with new battalions made up of seasoned soldiers who will specialize in fighting the criminal organizations. That could mean more bloodshed, but Salvadorans, desperate to see an end to the gangs’ dominance, are likely to welcome the campaign. If it doesn’t work, the gangs are likely to take control of more of Central America–and more migrants will flee north in search of a safe haven.

(1) A police officer from a special unit patrols the streets on May 21, 2015.

(2) Police investigate a murder in the capital, on May 21, 2015.

(3) An older woman cries in the district of Soyapango while police conducts a night raid in search of Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS 13) members on June 11, 2015.

(4) A member of Mara Salvatrucha gang is arrested for allegedly belonging to a criminal gang during a police raid in the district of Soyapango on June 11, 2015.

Photographs: Patrick Tombola/LAIF