Prison Pit – Welcome to the Home of El Salvador’s Most Notorious Gangs
Above: Temperatures can reach 100 degrees or higher in these sweaty enclosures. More than 30 men are crammed in each cage.
In San Salvador, the two main street gangs are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M18). Both were founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by a group of poor, mostly illegal immigrants. Initially their membership consisted almost exclusively of those who had escaped from the civil war in El Salvador. Many of these gang members were deported back to El Salvador after the war ended in 1992, exporting back a newly organized and ruthless gang culture.
For nearly two decades, the gangs have been murdering each other in the most brutal ways possible, while expanding throughout Latin America. In 2011, the murder rate peaked at 15 homicides per day in El Salvador. Last year a truce was negotiated between MS-13 and M18 with the assistance of religious leaders and the government. The aim of the truce was to stem the escalating number of shootings and deaths by focusing on the younger gang members and taking some of the weapons off the streets. According to the gang leaders, the time was right to talk and stop the violence. After the much publicized treaty was signed, the effects were almost instantaneous, and the homicide rate dropped 52 percent in 15 months; however, in early July of this year, tensions boiled over once again and there were 103 killings in the country in a single week, giving Salvadorans a reminder that some things may never change.