The tiny Central American country of El Salvador has a big problem. Since the US deported thousands of Salvadorians affiliated with the notorious Los Angeles gang MS-13 back in the ’90s, crime in El Salvador has skyrocketed. Murder rates are some of the highest in the world, and alongside Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador is considered the epicenter for gang crime and gang violence. Despite several government attempts to crack down on the gangs, murder rates remain unbelievably high. In 2012, for example, 66 people out of every 100,000 inhabitants were murdered. That’s three times the murder rate of Mexico, a country not unfamiliar with murder and gang violence itself.
The El Salvador government estimates that there are at least 25,000 active gang members in the country, 9,000 of whom currently reside in prison. In 2004, the government took the decision to segregate members of Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha in separate prisons, as violence between rival prisoners and towards prison staff had reached epidemic proportions. This came back to bite the authorities when the prisons effectively became headquarters for the gangs themselves. With prison authorities powerless to stop them, both the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha gangs ran huge criminal operations from both inside and outside their prisons.