Tariq Zaidi, a British photographer, captured this image at El Salvador’s Chalatenango jail in 2019. The jail had 1,637 prisoners at the time, all of them were MS-13 gang members who had terrorized the nation for decades.
Zaidi travelled in El Salvador in 2018 and spent eight months negotiating access to MS-13 and its rival, Barrio 18, in their harsh world. He visited six maximum-security prisons, as well as countless horrific murder scenes and funeral processions, during the next two years.
“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 in his collection of photographs, Sin Salida (No Way Out).
MS-13’s slogan is “kill, rape, control.” It is reported that 70 percent of El Salvador’s enterprises have been subjected to violent extortion. President Nayib Bukele, dubbed “the world’s coolest dictator,” came to office in 2019 on a platform of zero tolerance for gang violence after a decade in which the murder rate was greater than any nation outside of a war zone.
His totalitarian “territorial control plan,” which included an alleged secret collaboration with MS-13 leaders, more than tripled the country’s prison capacity and significantly reduced the official murder rate.
Prisoners were confined to warehouse-like communal cells linked with a network of hammocks at Chalatenango, where overcrowding was prevalent. Before Covid, tuberculosis ravaged the jail population, and following a fresh wave of gang violence in 2020, Bukele’s government decided to shut Chalatenango.
Rival gang members were imprisoned together in the country’s prisons for the first time. “They will be inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang,” Bukele said on Twitter in response to the new policy.