Why does London have so many gangs

El SalvadorThe dreaded Mara youth gangs

The inmates of the Mara prison look like an army: all are shaved and tattooed. They are between 18 and 40 years old. They are brought from all over El Salvador to the maximum security prison in the small town of Ciudad Barrios. Many have murdered several times. Others are here because of membership in a terrorist group. This is how the law has classified the gangs since 2015.

The prisoners here belong to the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS for short. She has strict rules that also apply in jail: disciplined and sitting in silence on the bare floor, the convicts present themselves to the microphone and camera. Only their palabrero, the speaker and leader, Carlos Rodríguez, 40 years old, is allowed to speak.

"Everything is missing here: medicine, hygiene articles, sports equipment such as balls. There is nothing to learn anything, to deal with culture or religion. Instead of just hanging around in this monotonous everyday life, we could have the time for something Use the productive and the positive. Perhaps this would change our mentality and also the image that others have of us: that we are a hopeless case and not worth investing time and money in ourselves. "

Carlos is serving a sentence of 81 years for three murders, but nobody gets old in prison: the young men are kept like animals. 3,166 inmates in cells planned for a maximum of 1,000. Overcrowding is a general problem in Latin American prisons, but here so-called special measures tighten the prison conditions that have been in place for maras since 2016. They are not allowed to receive visitors.

Every day in El Salvador ten to twelve deaths are due to the Maras - The Mara prison in the small town of Ciudad Barrios (Anne-Katrin Mellmann, ARD Mexico)

65,000 gang members nationwide

The Mara Salvatrucha is the largest gang in El Salvador. In total, the small country with its six million inhabitants has around 65,000 gang members. In 2005 there were 11,000. The Mara Salvatrucha is enemies with the Mara Diesyocho. For security reasons, each gang stays among themselves in jail.

The gang members are only allowed to get out of the stench of their cell twice a week. They are shared by 100 people - with only one blocked toilet. The four of them sleep on a thin mat, one inmate complains.

Infectious skin diseases are rampant, along with severe gastrointestinal infections from dirty drinking water. Last year 36 prisoners died of kidney failure or tuberculosis. Prison director Juan José Montano says he would improve prison conditions if he could:

"We have too many prisoners and too few staff to offer courses or programs to prepare for freedom. If so many of them did not relapse, there would be more space in the prisons. We lack security forces when evacuations have to be made. on the equipment of the rooms, beds, furniture. A lot of repairs would be necessary. But above all there is no space.

"We could use the time for something positive" - ​​Carlos Rodríguez, the leader of the Mara. (Anne-Katrin Mellmann, ARD Mexico)

El Salvador is extremely poor and there is nothing left for Maras. After years of unsuccessful hard-hand politics, the lock-up principle still applies today. The country is at war, says Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez:

"Unfortunately there is no one to negotiate with today. Every day ten or twelve deaths go to the account of the youth gangs. Many say that we cannot end this war, also because the Maras control vast territories. If the government supports them encounter more repression, gangs are killing more cops. There is no law that allows gang members to return to society. Who protects them when they leave, who gives them a chance? They don't care, anywhere Working $ 500 a month when they make a lot more from the drug business or blackmailing. We have to catch them instead of treating them like they are lost forever. And we have to understand that it is the death penalty for them, their gang to leave."

Once Mara, always Mara. The young men do not have an option to return. They are serious criminals, terrorize the slums. And they do the dirty work for Mexican drug cartels that control the smuggling routes of Central America. Her prison spokesman Carlos Rodríguez does not want to admit that.

The gangs arose in the emigrant ghettos from Los Angeles and only came here through deportations. Rodríguez explains the brutality with the history of El Salvador and the civil war that only ended in 1992:

"In the 1990s, after the end of the civil war, nobody cared that we El Salvadorians came to terms with our experiences from the war. Many of us grew up in the violence of war and saw soldiers and guerrillas mutually support one another They were all Salvadorans, but stood on two different sides. Today there are still two sides, only the names have changed: Today the Mara Salvatrucha is fighting against the enemy Mara 18. "

Maras have no political goals

With the difference that neither of the two maras has a political goal. Many children in the poor neighborhoods with no prospects want la vida loca - the crazy life: Better to live briefly, but with money, drugs and respect, than to toil under slave-like conditions and remain extremely poor. Carlos Rodríguez explains it this way:

"The young people join the maras because the state has no funds for them. It does not spend anything on their education. There are no values. Religion, yes, but you cannot buy food from it. Many see the gang the opportunity to buy clothes and shoes, to be able to live. In our country the children prefer to work than to school to support their families. Those who join a gang can earn their money much easier, because our gangs control them the neighborhoods and whoever participates can also have a say in the decision. "

What the Mara boss does not tell: Some are forcibly recruited. Anyone who does not want to participate will be killed. This is one of the reasons whole families migrate north. The Maras rule the slums, blackmail, rob, murder and proudly sing of their power.

"The war begins, the earth shakes. Welcome to my neighborhood, my boys shoot you right in the face for messing with us."

In Ciudad Barrios jail, they ask God for forgiveness for their crimes. All members of this Mara Salvatrucha belong to an evangelical free church. Their self-organized religion course gives them at least one extra hour in the fresh air in the prison yard. Even if they have committed crimes, one must respect their human rights in prison, demands Mara spokesman Carlos Rodríguez

"The judiciary in El Salvador is like a poisonous snake. It only bites those who have to walk barefoot - that is, the poor. That is unfair."

He and his compañeros were all punished too harshly because they were poor and could not afford good lawyers. Poverty and extreme inequality turn young men into criminals. El Salvador has no plan how to break the cycle.