It’s all too often a fatal signature. Inked into their skin, these are the tattoos of the Mara-18, one of Latin America’s largest street gangs. Death, blood and nihilist rebellion are their territory. Los Angeles-born, these ‘maras,’ or Hispanic street gangs now rage terror in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
One of the most haunting documentaries to surface in recent years, La Vida Loca by Hispanic-French photojournalist and filmmaker Christian Poveda is an extraordinary portrait of one of El Salvador’s most violent gangs, the Mara-18. Living in some of San Salvador’s most neglected urban slums, theirs is the tale of a forgotten youth generation.
Originating in the ghettos of Southern California in the Eighties, these Salvadoran gangs spread to Central America after the U.S. government deported tens of thousands of gang members back to El Salvador starting in the late 80s and early 90s, during the country’s civil war (1980-1992). La Vida Loca is a rare, intimate and raw look into the heart of the Mara-18, highlighting the social exclusion and poverty that turns young Salvadorans to crime.
La Vida Loca (2008) A film by Christian Poveda. Colour, Sound, 90 mins. Filmed in San Salvador, El Salvador, Central America
APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION
The maras live a fast, fearless and brutal existence without pity. No wonder then, that the ‘maras’ are named after the ‘marabuntas’, carnivorous ants of Central America that destroy all life in their path. In El Salvador, the Mara-18, also known as Barrio 18 or Calle 18, alongside their arch rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have made headlines for years for the savagery of their crimes. 11-17 year-olds are most likely to join the maras. They see no future, no value, no tomorrow. “Life is fatal in 18” (La vida en la 18 es fatal) as the Mara-18’s song Que Vayas con Dios says.
In El Salvador, an estimated 60,000 young people have been recruited as ‘mara’ members. Their criminal networks stretch through Central America and into many U.S. States. They model their lifestyle after the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles. Today, in the midst of a repressive and highly unequal society, El Salvador has become the volatile home to some of these deadliest gang rivalries.
A LOOK INTO THE MARA-18
Poveda’s story with the street gangs begins in 2004, when he first contacted members of the Mara-18 and suggested a few of the local gangs to live together in order to shoot a document. A great supporter of the deprived and dispossessed, more particularly of juvenile delinquents, Poveda became interested in the nation’s burgeoning gang youth. El Salvador was Poveda’s adopted country, one he knew inside and out, ever since his coverage of the country’s civil war.
Filmed with a hand-held camera, La Vida Loca chronicles daily life in a base cell of one of the gigantic maras, the la Campanera X-18 clique. Composed of fifty adolescents and young adults with an average age of 16 to 18, theirs is a cruel reality: we see streets as battlefields, gang members shot in the streets, public beatings, police brutality, and funeral upon funeral.
Over the course of 16 months, Poveda built up their trust and filmed La Vida Loca. Poveda reported on his process in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “My proposal was at least one year of filming, and I explained my plan to them, which essentially was to show the human aspect of the gangs, to show who they are, these youngsters. And that really interested them ( … ) The second thing within my proposal was not to explain what a gang is, how it is formed, what activities it performs – that kind of thing does not interest me. What interested me was the human aspect: who they are, why a 12 year old boy becomes a murderer and is willing to die before age 20”.
Poveda also created photographic portraits of some of the characters he met. Without judgement, Poveda’s camera returns dignity, emotion and humanity to the face of the Mara-18. We meet La Lira (Little One), a 19 year old mother, who has a gigantic “18” tattooed across her whole face: a punishment from her own gang for not having executed murder against an enemy when she was aged just 16. Alongside of her is her 4 month-old son, Cesarito and his father, El BamBam, aged 26 years old. One of the oldest members of the gang, he is also the tattoo artist for the clique, to which he’s belonged for 12 years. He was murdered in 2012.
If Poveda is not here to tell us about La Vida Loca today, it’s because this exceptional investigation cost him his life. On September 2nd 2009, Poveda was found shot dead in his car, on his way back from filming in La Campanera, a surburb controlled by gangs north of the capital.
Although a court in El Salvador convicted 10 gang members and a former policeman for filmmaker Christian Poveda’s murder, his death remains shrouded in controversy as investigated by the 2012 documentary “Qui a tué Christian Poveda” (“Who killed Christian Poveda?”). Before his death, Poveda had been approached by the gangs who saw him as a possible mediator for a truce.
“Christian is just one of the 10 who will die today,” photographer Edu Ponces wrote on the Salvadoran Internet newspaper El Faro. “If you look long enough down the throat of the lion, he will eat you.”
TATTOOS AS A SYMBOL OF LOYALTY
Known for their extensive facial tattoos, the tattoo is cult for the maras. Poveda’s La Vida Loca reveals tattooing as an initiation and symbol of loyalty. Older or more active members generally wear the larger, more prominent tattoos. The numerals of the gang are etched into skin, becoming something of a logo. Images of spider webs, barbed wire, devil horns and gravestones also add to this story on their skin, often charged with memories of lost friends. “You get tattooed to remember your loved ones that died,” said Agustín, a former gang member, as reported in an interview for Infosurhoy.com. “But some get tattoos to let the other members of the gang know how tough they are. The gang boss doesn’t allow you to get tattooed because you want to or because he wants you to. You have to earn the right.”
Their tattoos become a powerful cultural symbol, an oath to total rebellion where drug trafficking, prison and killing are practically the rule. Even so, gang life restores their sense of belonging, becoming a substitute family, and an unshakeable alliance against a system that has evaded their hopes of a better tomorrow. “The brotherhood must be the gang’s first virtue”, as El Moreno says, a 26 year-old gang member in La Vida Loca.
Being tattooed as a mara makes social reintegration all the more difficult. For now, the burgeoning gang scene of the maras looks light-years away from dieing out. “The kids in El Salvador are fans of the gangs … because they have nothing else to do”, says Beto, a Mara leader.
A SPIRAL OF VIOLENCE AND CORRUPTION
In 2012, an unprecedented truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and rival Mara-18 was reached, backed by the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States. The truce had cut the murder rate in El Salvador down to a 10-year low in mid-2013. But in light of the recent resurge of violence, things have taken a turn for the worse. Murders rose 44 % in the first three months of 2014 compared to a year ago, according to the Supreme Court’s forensic medical authority. The country still has one of the highest murder rates in the world, making it the world’s second most violent nation outside of a war zone, after neighbouring Honduras.
“Gangs are the result of catastrophic policies used in El Salvador, as well as by the United States,” Poveda told The Los Angeles Times in April 2009. “It’s important to understand that the US bears [some of] the blame for all this.” Powerful interests are also invested in the country’s security industry, which has also become dominant throughout Central America. “The security industry makes a lot of money; people make money off the violence. Guns are everywhere”, confides Beto.
“Government authorities have no idea of the monster facing them”, said Poveda, a day before his death in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “No one can deny that this country is the most violent in Latin America. No one can deny that there are bodies lieing around in the streets. It’s a sight we see every day.”
It is clear whose side Christian Poveda was on – that of the outsiders and victims of injustice. Despite the cruelty, shootings and death, Poveda said he also saw the young men and women as victims of a repressive society, social neglect and crippling poverty. “As savage as they can be, they’re people of their word”, said Poveda.
El Salvador remains politically polarized and without a sustained effort to address the issues of its highly unequal society, the maras can be expected to thrive, as if a deaf cry left unanswered. “We’ve won battles but the war continues”, proclaims a gang member in La Vida Loca. “It’s just the beginning, the end is far away. Others will die, but the 18 lives forever.”