British photographer Tariq Zaidi took this photo in Chalatenango prison in El Salvador in 2019. At the time, the prison held 1,637 inmates, all members of the MS-13 gang that has terrorized the country for decades. Zaidi arrived in El Salvador in 2018 and spent eight months negotiating access to the brutal world of the MS-13 and its rival, Barrio 18. Over the next two years, he visited six maximum security prisons and numerous bloody crime scenes and funeral processions. His goal, he suggests, in his picture book, Sin salida (No Way Out), was to document the vicious dystopia that parts of El Salvador had become: leaving behind. “
The motto of MS-13 is “kill, rape, control”. It is estimated that he used violent extortion against 70% of Salvadoran companies. After a dozen years in which the murder rate was higher than any country outside of a war zone, President Nayib Bukele, who calls himself “the coolest dictator in the world”, won power in 2019 on a platform of zero tolerance for gang violence. His authoritative “land control plan”, along with a supposed secret pact with MS-13 leaders, filled the country’s prisons to more than triple their capacity and drastically reduced the official murder rate.
Overcrowding was endemic in Chalatenango, where prisoners were confined in common cells resembling warehouses, strung by a canvas of hammocks. Tuberculosis ravaged the prison population before Covid and after another wave of gang violence in 2020, the Bukele administration shut down Chalatenango. For the first time, members of rival gangs have been jailed together in prisons across the country. Bukele used his Twitter account to comment on the new policy: “They will be inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang.”
Sin Salida by Tariq Zaidi is published by Gost (£ 35)