Death, murder and disappearances: Tariq Zaidi on El Salvador’s gang crisis

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The photographer’s new book, Sin Salida, candidly portrays the devastating reality of Salvadorans who lead lives of fear and daily intimidation

Tariq Zaidi arrived in El Salvador in 2018. He was preparing for an investigative project about Salvadoran gangs, one which would see him return to the Central American country two more times. Zaidi’s first stop was the office of a senior police officer. “He told me about his work, what he’d seen during his years as a police officer, and what I could do to document the story,” Zaidi recalls. Images of brutal murders committed by gangs over the last 30 years covered the walls; the officer always kept a loaded pistol on the desk. Later, Zaidi discovered he had received multiple death threats and survived a kidnapping attempt. (Many police officers wear balaclavas to avoid being identified by their targets.)

Two of the most violent street gangs in the world dominate El Salvador’s society: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and its rival, Barrio 18. The gangs are ruthless, powerful and territorial. Estimates suggest some 600,000 Salvadorans – roughly 10 per cent of the population – are directly or indirectly involved with the network. The remainder live in constant fear; murder, extortion and disappearances form a central part of daily life.

Zaidi, who lived and worked across Latin America for four years previously, became interested in the situation. “When then-President Trump was calling Central American migrant caravans ‘criminals’ and the like, I wanted to explore what kind of life these people were leaving behind,” he says. “I wanted to show the world just how dystopian El Salvador has become, and how the extent, scale and savagery of violence is unlike anything most of us have ever known.”

The photographer spent eight months negotiating his access with the authorities. Zaidi often works alone, however the volatile and risky nature of the project required a team’s assistance. He also liaised with numerous authorities such as FOCA (Joint Anti-Criminal Operation Force), STO (Tactical Operational Section) and the emergency services to gain access to “night raids and to be one of the first on the scene at murder sites”. Ultimately, he visited six maximum-security prisons, three holding pens, numerous crime scenes, morgues, family homes, police centres and officials’ offices.

Inmates look out of a cell in a section where ‘extraordinary measures’ were introduced in the Penal Center of Quezaltepeque © Tariq Zaidi, GOST Books
A policeman during a patrol in San Martín, San Salvador © Tariq Zaidi

“There are two reasons that make El Salvador unique from other countries where gangs are common. First is the hold they have over everyday society, and the extent to which there has been a complete breakdown in trust and safety. Second is the brutal techniques and imagery with which they are associated. It is impossible to cross the street in many cities due to the territories that gangs control, which entirely cordons off neighbourhoods and streets.”

Living in fear

Zaidi’s resulting project publishes as a new book, Sin Salida (No Way Out), following three years of work. Chapters that carefully delineate the history of the gangs and present the devastating reality for Salvadorans divide the publication. It is documentation of intense violence, incarceration and death. 

The book often situates viewers as bystanders, transporting us to the scenes depicted. One image shows a building’s entrance illuminated by street lights; a stillness permeates as first-responders await the arrival of more police to investigate the murder that took place moments earlier inside. Some photographs force us to confront the brutality directly. A young man’s body lies at the bottom of concrete stairs in San Salvador Central Market. Blood slowly leaks from his skull; handcuffs are visible around his wrists. Later we see pale corpses in coffins, thick stitches pulling their skin together. Graves manifest page after page. The relentlessness of these scenes is distressing and uncomfortable, yet crucial to communicating the reality Zaidi set out to convey.

The burial of young alleged gang member, aged 22, in Chapeltique Municipal Cemetery, in San Miguel. He was one of four people killed during a confrontation with agents of special operations police units in a jungle camp © Tariq Zaidi
Inmates display their fashion creations as part of the Yo Cambio (‘I Change’) programme, which attempts to rehabilitate prisoners at the Penal Center of Quezaltepeque © Tariq Zaidi, courtesy of GOST Books

“We heard about a double homicide of a mother and daughter a couple of hours’ drive from the capital,” the photographer recalls. “We went to the morgue, and on arrival, saw two coffins leaving.” Zaidi joined the victims’ family later that night. “Everyone seemed nervous – if the mother and daughter were assassinated, obviously the family had a problem with the gang. They were nervous they’d be hit again to make a point to the community and, because of this, just wanted the funeral over quickly.” A man Zaidi met at the murder scene was responsible for preparing the bodies for the wake. He worked for two hours, covering the corpses in chemicals and stitching their bullet wounds together. “It was intense,” says Zaidi. The mother has been shot in the head, the daughter in the chest and back.

Alongside executions like these, the gangs employ torture and mutilation to exert power over “their” neighbourhoods. The country frequently tops the list for the highest murder rates in countries outside war zones. “There are two reasons that make El Salvador unique from other countries where gangs are common,” says Zaidi. “First is the hold they have over everyday society, and the extent to which there has been a complete breakdown in trust and safety. Second is the brutal techniques and imagery with which they are associated. It is impossible to cross the street in many cities due to the territories that gangs control, which entirely cordons off neighbourhoods and streets. Drivers who fear violence often have to flash their lights or roll their windows down when entering a new neighbourhood to indicate allegiance to the gang that controls it. Pervasive fear, violence and intimidation grip society in a manner rarely seen.”

Inmates perform gymnastics at the Chalatenango Penal Center © Tariq Zaidi courtesy of GOST Books

“My duty as a human being and photographer was to show as much as I could to help people understand what thousands of families have to live with daily in this small Central American country. These victims have no voice – most come from humble backgrounds and poor communities. My hope with this work is to amplify their voices to a wider audience.”

Gangs behind bars

In 2019, Nayib Bukele became El Salvador’s president. The leader has received criticism for many of his controversial policies, often described as ‘authoritarian’. In 2020, his government was accused of allegedly cutting a deal with MS-13 to curb homicides in exchange for better prison conditions. Bukele denies any dialogue with the gang. He is perhaps better known for his zero-tolerance policy on gang violence, evidenced by his crackdown on jailed gang members with “extraordinary measures”. Prisons, explains Zaidi, play a crucial role in gang communication; it is thought gang leaders order 80 per cent of attacks from the inside. “[Prison] is a place [one can] see many government programmes in action, whether they’re positive ones, like Yo Cambio [‘I Change’] – a government programme to equip prisoners with skills that could help them find employment – or punitive ones, like crowding prisoners together in large cells.” 

Zaidi’s images show dozens of men confined to overcrowded cells where they remain day and night. Poor hygiene, suffocating heat and close contact make this a fertile environment for the spread of disease. An image of the inside of Chalatenango Penal Centre – which closed in December 2019 – shows hammocks hanging from the ceiling; there is no room for beds. The men and women wear “a uniform” of white T-shirts and shorts, some sporting bandanas to block out the “putrid” smell. The purpose of showing these images in Sin Salida is not an exercise in sympathy. However, the disregard for the prisoners’ human rights is undeniable.

Miguel Ángel (left) and Cesar Barrio (centre), prepare the coffin for the wake of a 37-year-old man who was killed in a motorcycle drive-by shooting in Colonia Santa Cristina, Barrio Santa Anita, San Salvador © Tariq Zaidi

The book concludes with striking portraits of gang members, photographed shirtless against a luminous yellow wall. The simple setting encourages us to focus on their elaborate tattoos: evidence of gang allegiance inscribed across their bodies and faces. “It is important for the viewer to see and perhaps even feel the presence of a gang member up close and personal,” explains Zaidi. “The portraits put a face to the story and the savage violence, which is unlike anything most of us have ever known. The only way to meet them ‘safely’ is in prison.

“After meeting murder, kidnapping or extortion victims and their families, who all showed tremendous courage in sharing their stories with me, they all asked me to tell the world outside El Salvador what is happening in their lives,” says Zaidi. “My duty as a human being and photographer was to show as much as I could to help people understand what thousands of families have to live with daily in this small Central American country.” He adds: “These victims have no voice – most come from humble backgrounds and poor communities. My hope with this work is to amplify their voices to a wider audience.”

On the last day of Zaidi’s first trip, he returned to see the police officer whose office he had visited on his arrival. The photographer shared his stories, telling the officer about the work he had done and the people he had met. “Then [the officer] said, ‘I hope you’re not squeamish, I want to show you something’,” Zaidi recalls. “He went to his computer and showed me some of the videos recovered from gang members’ phones either captured or killed by the police.”

The officer played a video of gang members, Zaidi explains, “cleaving off the hands of a victim and then playing with the fingers, all while laughing hysterically. The knowledge that the perpetrators are most likely sober, as gang rules often prohibit intoxication, makes it more terrifying. ‘Now you’ve seen what these gang members are about,’ [the policeman] said. ‘Now you’ve seen what these gang members do. Now go write your fucking story.’”  

tariqzaidi.com  

@tariqzaidiphoto

Sin Salida is published by GOST Books and is available now

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.