Features

Marked targets

El Salvador | Central American authorities-and U.S. officials-have had enough of tattoo-laden gangbangers, but is their crackdown enough?

Issue: "Big bucks ministries," July 28, 2007

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador- If every tattoo were a statement, the dermal layer of José de Cabrea's skin would never shut up.

He smiles sheepishly. A clown smiles back from his right forearm. A haloed Virgin Mary looks on ethereally from the other. In the San Salvador tattoo parlor where he spends most afternoons, a silver crucifix necklace swings as he shifts his weight on a counter.

He shrugs. He spins and pulls up his shirt. A pair of baseball-sized dice, frozen in mid-tumble on snake eyes, wrap around his lumbar and obliques. A tribal thorn design spans the skin between his shoulder blades.

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And the 23-year-old hates them all. The calligraphy etched on the nape of his neck is particularly odious. He says he is not in a gang. But the tattoo's location and flourished letters-"CHEO," a Puerto Rican nickname for José-are similar to the marks worn by members of Mara Salvatrucha, the most feared and tattooed gang in El Salvador, whose violent cells now stretch from here to Long Island ("Criminals next door," June 18, 2005).

Police in El Salvador, de Cabrea says, watch like hawks for tattoos these days, ostensibly in search of gang marks like "18" and "DIESIOCHO," for Mara 18, or the more villainous "13" and "MS" signifying Mara Salvatrucha.

It is part of a zero-tolerance policy called Mano Dura ("Hard Hand") enacted in El Salvador and Honduras to melt the snowballing numbers of gangs and homicide rates that follow. (Probably high estimates put Mara Salvatrucha's numbers alone at 100,000.) Laws now allow police to arrest youths just for having a tattoo. In Honduras, a foggy, cover-all charge called "illicit involvement" can carry a 12-year sentence for associating with gangs.

The United States pushed for the "Hard Hand" after the gangs, which included many illegal immigrants, spread through the United States, committing crimes in places as far-flung as Reno, Nev., where gang members shot a 12-year-old boy playing soccer; and Somerville, Mass., where they raped two deaf girls, one in a wheelchair. The FBI eventually created a special task force to combat Mara Salvatrucha, and wanted governments at the source to hang tough.

"If you have tattoos, the police will stop you, period," de Cabrea says. "It is like wearing a target on your back." He and others expect to get frisked in public. Semi-strip searches to make sure no other tattoos hide underneath are no surprise. "If I had the money," de Cabrea says, "I would pay for [the tattoos] to be removed in an instant." Having just his larger tattoos removed, though, could cost up to $500 per visit, and clinics told him to expect at least 10 visits.

This sent de Cabrea, who works in construction for about $150 a month, recruiting help to purge them from his body-but not help from the government: "They want to punish people like me." A friend told him about a Honduras-based program called Adios Tatuajes ("Goodbye Tattoos") with a clinic in the poor San Salvador barrio of Mejicanos. Its removal process, which uses infrared light, costs less, scars less, and can be operated by non-medical personnel.

Youths who participate have the cost partially underwritten, but the rest is still pricey for them. (De Cabrea says he is saving part of his paychecks.) The program, the only one of its kind in the country, calls tattoo-removal an "essential element for rehabilitation"-but few places like Adios Tatuajes exist. "The current situation discourages rehabilitation," says Juan Fuentes, who volunteers at a youth job-placement program in San Salvador.

It's fitting that Mara Salvatrucha fanned out en masse across Latin America and the United States like a plague of army ants: In Spanish, a marabunta is a legion of carnivorous ants that devours whatever crosses its path. Its shortened form, mara, is slang for "gang member," and the Salvatruchan brand of bloodlust has transformed impoverished barrios into death traps.

But that the government tirelessly pursues the criminal activity of these gangs while mostly ignoring its potent cultural pull seems paradoxical to many Salvadorans. José de Cabrea says he sees 7-year-olds with "MS" tattoos. "Usually, they are runaways," he says. "The gang is their family."

Central American presidents liken the battle to the War on Terror, but for Salvadorans the violence racking their communities more resembles the bloody 12-year civil war that left 75,000 dead when it ended in 1992. That civil war indirectly spawned Mara Salvatrucha. Hemmed in by coups d'état and unrest in the 1970s, refugees abandoned their war-ravaged homeland in the 1980s. Many came illegally to Los Angeles. The rough ghettos where they often settled were filled with gangs that preyed upon the children of refugees, who clustered together to fight back. MS-13 became the biggest and baddest of the clusters.

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