The El Salvador Gang Members So Feared That They Police Their Own Jail

Adam Hinton/Panos

These photographs show the faces of the most feared gang members in the world – a group so notorious and dangerous that they actually police their own prison.

The members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang are so renowned in El Salvador that the drug pushers, murderers and weapons dealers are left to their own devices behind bars, while guards too afraid to enter simply patrol the perimeter to ensure the criminals stay inside.

Adam Hinton/Panos

There are 2,500 gang members locked up in Penas Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador and they control their own miniature society which comes complete with a bakery, workshops, a hospital and rehab.

In 2013, London photographer Adam Hinton was given unprecedented access inside the prison to document the lives of the incarcerated gang members, who are covered in tattoos which tell the story of the crimes they’ve committed and the loved ones they’ve lost during their time in the gang.

Adam Hinton/Panos

Hinton said:

The men stand around aimless with nothing to do except kill what seem like an infinity of minutes, hours and days. The vast majority of the inmates are from the Barrios or slums. In El Salvador this is a place without hope or opportunity and the gang is the only real option. If the authorities catch you this is the place they literally dump you and forget about you – every inmate is made to feel just like that.

Adam Hinton/Panos

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, according to United Nations statistics, with an estimated 80 per cent of homicides in the nation related to purges and score-settling between the country’s gangs.

Violence has risen steadily in El Salvador since a 2012 truce between the country’s two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and its rival Barrio 18, began to fall apart last year.

Adam Hinton/Panos

Last month, El Salvador saw the highest number of murders since its bloody 12-year civil war ended in 1992 – more than 900 people were killed, with 52 deaths on one day. From January to August, El Salvador recorded 4,246 homicides, an average of 17.5 a day.

No wonder the prison guards want to give this lot a wide berth!