The Mara


The Mara Salvatrucha street gang has a compelling story. It started in the Salvadoran Civil War when thousands of trained and violent ex-combatants were exiled to the United States, especially to the Los Angeles area. They were relocated in the most dangerous gang ridden zones of the city. Desperate for protection from enemies, the exiled Salvadoreans formed the Mara Salvatrucha.
The gang was originally formed by trained foot-soldiers with open war skills mixed in with the local gang operandi. A special syncretism formed between their violent identity and local gang aesthetic. They adopted the local gang attire, fashion and music. A jargon of their own was created, that included a complex hand sign language identified as gang signs.
Gang identity became macabre. The gang's culture started revolving around the worship of death. Cruelty and merciless vengeance is part of the daily life of the gang members and it encompasses perfectly with their quasi-religious occult beliefs. They have a complete disregard for establishment, society and life in general. The Mara Salvatrucha are known for the most gruesome and violent crimes in the American continent.
Tattoos are essential in their expression of the morbid. Dark figures become beautiful works of art, using gang member’s bodies as the canvas. Tombs, crosses, the name of their clique, names of the fallen gang members, demons, skeletons among other somber figures are etched into their skin adorning their bodies, in occasions even covering their faces. The infamous “tear drops” under the eyes are supposed to be a symbol for every murder they have committed.
Their sanguinary ways brought them a lot of notoriety, many of them were eventually sent back to El Salvador and Central America, where they established more gangs or “Maras” as they are commonly called, expanding to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico. These third world countries, with practically no knowledge on gang control were overridden by the violence of the Maras. Open war broke out in the streets, between rival gangs like MS13 and the 18th Street Gang, both originally founded in Los Angeles. El Salvador in particular was just recuperating from the war, society was completely broken, families destroyed and divided; an ideal fresh new turf for the Maras to establish and recruit more members.
Impoverished homeless orphans were recruited from a very early age and the Mara became their only family.
Members have all the nationalities of the above mentioned countries. There are different practices for new Mara members, sustaining a beating by the rest of the gang and killing a rival gang member are just one of them. New members are introduced into violence and drug use since a very early age. Maras swear allegiance to their clique forever. Being a Mara is for life, the only way to exit the gang is by death, sometimes at the hand of a fellow gang member.
Their main activities revolve around drug trade, racketeering, extortion, kidnapping and murder. Being cruel and unforgiving, they have recently been implemented as hit men by Mexican drug cartels, practicing torture as part of their modus operandi. Illegal immigrants became their perfect target in Mexico’s southern border.
In Central America the violence became overwhelming. Mass killings appeared everywhere. Aggressive government policies clashed with the Mara, overcrowding prisons. The tattoos and use of gang signs were obvious indicators of delinquency, easily leading police. The Mara adapted. New members avoid these obvious indicators, and they no longer have tattoos. Most tattooed members are either in prison, hiding or dead.
The Mara Salvatrucha is present in all Central American countries, Mexico and almost every state and major city in the United States.
The photographs were taken by the acclaimed Spanish photgrapher Isabel Muñoz in a prison in El Salvador.