Photographer documents Mara Salvatrucha in prison

The intricate tattoos on the faces, chests, arms and legs of members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gangs of Los Angeles and Central America are on display this month in downtown Mexico City.
The striking, close-up portraits of male gang members and the tattoos that tell the tales of their lives are part of an exhibition in the Center of Contemporary Mexican Culture (Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo) by Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz. Muñoz took the photographs by spending time in the prisons in El Salvador that are now home to many of the gang members.
One half of the exhibition takes an aesthetic approach to its subject, with many of the photos snapped against a white background to bring out the images of spiderwebs, women and gravestones that pattern the skins of Muñoz’s subjects. But the beauty really is only skin deep, when we consider what we know about the Mara Salvatrucha gangs.
The Maras are reportedly responsible for a large percentage of homicides, robberies, kidnapping, drugs and arms trafficking across Central America and Southern Mexico. Here in Mexico, rights groups say that undocumented migrants passing through the country to the United States are being increasingly victimized by these criminal networks, with kidnappings on the rise.
The Mara Salvatrucha gangs formed on the streets of Los Angeles but huge swathes of their members have been deported back after serving time in the U.S to countries in Central America. You can read a report from Tracy Wilkinson on the gangs in El Salvador here, from 1994.
Deporting them home has merely sent their criminal tendencies south and, far from eradicating the groups, has helped expand them into international networks. Data from the police in El Salvador attributes more than 30 percent of murders committed in that country to these gangs – that’s more than 850 murders annually, according to information at the Mexico City exhibition.
“There are no exact numbers on how many young people are involved with the Maras in Central America. But security agencies in the region, Interpol, the FBI and the federal police talk of around 70,000 youngsters being enrolled in these groups in Central America, with a large part of them in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” reads the text on one of the walls at the exhibition.
“However, there is evidence that that number has grown in the last few years with the expansion of the phenomenon to other regions and that their mode of operation had become more complex and virulent.”
Those photographs don’t look so pretty now, right?

Images: Both of these images are taken from the exhibition “Las Maras” by Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz currently on show in Mexico City’s Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo. Courtesy of Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo.
Click here to see an archive multi-media project on the MS-13 gangs in Los Angeles and Central America by Luis Sinco.
This post was written for La Plaza