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.
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.
It slowly climbed the gangland food chain. The U.S. government began a massive deportation program in the 1980s that expelled about 40,000 a year back to Central America. Here, their Maori-tribesmen-like tattoos and imperfect Spanish ostracized them. The only place they belonged, it seemed, was in Mara Salvatrucha. The gangs re-formed, so the region's leaders adopted counterinsurgency tactics taken from the same guerrilla warfare that originally drove the gang members to L.A.
The El Salvador government's last move was to ratchet Mano Dura up in mid-2004 into a version called Super Mano Dura. Despite vocal censuring from the United Nations, which maintained that the program overleaped rules of due process, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved reforms that authorized, among other things, the arrest of youths for tattoos. The Salvadoran government was able to report somewhat victoriously that Super Mano Dura reduced 2004's homicide rate by 14 percent. The improvement, however, wasn't permanent: El Salvador defaulted back to 552 murders in the first two months of 2005.
Critics say the effect has been closer to stomping on an anthill than wiping out the colony: Rather than curbing the violence, hard-handed policies inflamed gangs. Homicides have gone up since the first Mano Dura was enacted in 2003. In 2005 there were 3,812 murders, the most since 1998 and an average of more than 10 a day.
Mario Vega is senior pastor of San Salvador's Misión Cristiana Elim Internacional Church, which has been the backbone of El Salvador's growing evangelical and Pentecostal movement, filling in where the Catholic Church has dwindled. Elim's active membership of almost 150,000 makes it one of the world's largest churches. Under the aegis of Vega, a clean-cut man with an infectious smile, the church has held rallies of 200,000 whose attendees included evangelical-friendly President Elías Antonio Saca.
Vega believes politicians have little interest in backing alternatives to gangs, so Elim tries to fill the void. The megachurch has several programs targeting youths, and many of its 6,500 cell groups volunteer with at-risk children once a week. "Currently, our cell system cares for about 30,000 boys and girls," he says. "Our goal is to be able to reach 100,000 in the next few years."
Fed up with government inaction, other nonprofits-many faith-based, almost all small and underfunded-have joined the battle on the cultural front. Larger organizations such as the NGO FundaSalva, which offers job training to former maras, and Homies Unidos, an organization in San Salvador and L.A. that provides alternatives to gang life, also run tattoo-removal clinics.
These programs, Vega says, satisfy at-risk youths' desire to feel like they belong. In place of torso-sized tattoos and gangbangs, they instruct children in Christian values, warning of the destructive power of drugs and violence. Vega speaks of a crucial juncture in El Salvador's future and hopes that a preoccupied government and under-funded, sometimes embittered, nonprofits will work together.
Until that day, his prognosis is bleak. "Everyone in El Salvador knows that the Super Mano Dura program is a downright disaster," Vega says. "Only government officials and the president think that things are improving."