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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 skin 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 swaths of their members have been deported back after serving time in the U.S to countries in Central America. You can read a 1994 report from Tracy Wilkinson on the gangs in El Salvador here. 

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," reads the text on one of the walls at the exhibition. 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.

"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?

--Deborah Bonello


Images: Both of these images are taken from the exhibition "Las Maras" by Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz currently showing in Mexico City's Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo. Courtesy of Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo.

Click here to see an archived multimedia project on the MS-13 gangs in Los Angeles and Central America by The Times' Luis Sinco.

Comments () | Archives (18)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Cash's Lady:
Heart is nice but when all we hear about is: 'drive by this and useless killing that' I find it hard to see anything but evil. Show me a positive about anybody in a gang. He may be loving and caring to you and his "crew" but what about the rest of us that will be caught in the crossfire.

I'm the wife of a Los Angeles gang member and I gotta say that some of you people don't know what the hell you are talking about. Yeah it is true some of them are former victims of child abuse but not all of them. I can see you guys are pointing out are the negative aspects of the of gang member, yet you forget to say that these indivisuals are very loving and caring people. When it comes to their family there isn't anything they wouldn't do for them. They are also have a lot of heart. That is something that you guys no anything about especially you MS drop-0ut.

this article is great but what it lacks is the historical content that explains the "American" relationship our nation has with this mara salvatrucha gang. the original memeber's of this gang are the people who where fleeing the civil unrest of a government that tortured its inhabitants in the name of the American cold war. these kids who joined this gang where forced to come to the very country that funded there deracination. our american system of warfare,economics, and stigma for non white immigrants has created the platform in which violence and frustration can run wild, and free from any type of limitations.

mmmmmm first guy is so sexy :D

Thanks Ronald Reagan for leaving a legacy of gangs, illegal drugs and violence among our Indigenous youth in Central America.

i was a member of ms13 sls and i think that the gang life takes you nowhere but to your grave

La Mara por vida homie

E.S. and anonymous for obvious reasons, I don't think these photos are necessarily about tattoo quality or passing this off as classical art. These are part of an installation that uses the art of the photodocumentary to display the result of a life you and I will never have to experience. Photodocumentaries force us to open our eyes to a world outside of our immediate surroundings and to question what it is about the content of the art that affects us - or perhaps relates to us. Personally, I think the photographer did a great job with the solo portrait of the tattooed man to emphasize his human identity outside of his gang while creating this tongue-and-cheek use of the up-close studio, 3/4 profile shot as a throwback to glamour portraits. Most importantly, I commend the photographer for bravely building a rapport with the gang and for its willing members to show the world how sheltered and privileged we are.

SATAN is real. These tattoos photographs only remind me of LOST YOUNG MEN, DOING THE DEVIL's WORK, for revenge (another Devil tactic). Please - The Virgin Mary and Jesus are VERY REAL TOO ! TURN TO THEM, and endure hardship for HOLINESS SAKE ! Evil leads to death and ETERNAL DAMNATION - TRUST ME ! You are better than that !

People with all these tattoos remind me of the movie "Joe Dirt", where the title character has a mullet wig fused to his head when he was a baby. The mullet goes out of style, and looks ridiculous, just like these tattoos will, not like they don't already.

Its a shame to see such waste of life and of potential. Its even more of a shame that the US has been the starting place in the waste of potential for so many human beings.

The Streets of LA were rough and gang plagued when the refugees arrived, it would have been better to place them in Florida which had more of a mixed Latino group (from a lot of countries) who are far more accepting to newcomers.

What was once formed as a protection against predators has now become and international group of predators themselves; bringing nothing but death. Sending them back to poor countries recovering from wars simply spread the problem.

I look at the photos and see a waste of what should have been doctors, lawyers, writers, sportsmen, chefs, engineers, carpenters, etc.

my 2 cents!
I agree with frankie firme. These were kids at one point were throw aways. Not only from deportation, but from parents that did not know what to do with a problem child. I grew up around this when Salvadorians were migrating over here. My mother was the first one in the US. My aunts came after. I know the clash between Mexican and Salvadorians and my aunts and uncles experienced it and it did not come from the Salvadorian side. But, I didn't get involved in gangs, nor did my family. I can see the resolve to violence as way of kids defending themselves. The gang is out of control now and it's awful. Arguing if this is art or not is the whole point to art making. Frida Kahlo's painting on having a miscarriage is not pretty, and some of these pictures are not pretty, but they are real. Diego Rivera was not a prince to say the least.
Everyone has seen Diego and Frida fool!

On tattoos, The people pictured do not want to make it onto tattoo magazine. Even the people freshly painted on tattoo magazine with a coy is not interesting. Originally, as you know, tattooed people were indigenous, and there after in the US and beyond sailors, criminals, drug addicts covering tracks, etc etc.., they are not post punk, indie, bla bla bla with cherries and tribal hearts and perfect spiderwebs. These people are not going to Hollywood to get their tats.. Their tattoos are for other reasons.. They are to intimidate, to show commitment to their gang, they don't care about you, and this lifestyle is their demise and they know it. It's war paint that they cant take off.

What would somebody expect? These gang members are the children of the past that were abused, neglected, ridculed, and who witnessed their parents being abused and discriminated against openly, simply because they were escaping a war that was political chess between the U.S. & South American politicians, some who made millions on the side through drug trafficking.
I remember as a young man growing up in L.A. in the 60's & 70's, the kids from El Salvador were openly picked on by almost everyone, including other Latinos.
They were heavily discriminated against,made to feel inferior,treated with disrespect & contempt... and now that they are grown up and seeking redress, albeit through inappropriate channels that are making them illegally rich like the politicians, people now want to cry foul at their mere existence, one they helped create!
The child you ignore & mistreat...will someday come back to get you...the Mara Salvatrucha is just proof of things to come!
I don't support them, or even think they are right...but THEY DO exist, and that reality of origin has to be acknowleged on serious terms, instead of negative & punitive terms, which is like throwing gas on a fire.

I would not like to display my name or email should you use my comments. I do so for personal safety as these comments not be welcomed by the gangsters and they still roam the streets of Los Angeles amongst other cities and countries.

These are portraits of criminals: murderers, rapist, extortionists etc. This is not art, this is news photography. I'm upheld that the city of Mexico would allow this photos to be shown as art. Think of all the undocumented people they've killed while crossing Mexico trying to make their way to the U.S. Mexico is better than that.

This is art? Are you kidding me? These MS gang members are the trash of the earth and there is an exhibition dedicated to them? Only in Mexico City would they allow this kind of garbage. Yeah, why dont they display the photographs with some of Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo's work. Imbeciles!


Those tats aren't even any good. There's a million no talent prison tattoo artists who can do amateur work like that. Any current issue of Tattoo magazine will put that stuff to shame.

Please see the link above for a critical article on the exhibition in Mexico City.


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