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The Gangs of El Salvador: Inside the Prison the Guards are too Afraid to Enter

Adam Hinton is one of those guys who you feel like knowing your whole life after spending a couple of minutes with them. This is essential for photographers and can be a life-saver if you, like Adam, work at some of the most dangerous places in the world.


“People relax very quickly with me,” he says. “I was with a gang in El Salvador, and after half an hour they said, ‘Do you want to come round the back with us?’ That might have freaked other people out, but they seemed pretty chilled, so I did it. They started smoking dope, then got a gun out. My fixer said afterwards, ‘I’ve never seen that happen within a fortnight [of the first meeting], but it happened to you in a few minutes.’ I don’t go into those situations looking over my shoulder, or looking really panicky. I’m sometimes a bit naively oblivious to what’s going on.”

Adam has done it all – from sweaty Adidas photoshoots to personal photo essays. His career started in Donetsk in the 90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed. “I went to photograph coalminers, who were heroes of the proletariat and were no longer going to be that. I was interested in how that society was going to change.” He got to know a family in the region, and went back and forth for three years, photographing the community around them. “That became the blueprint for my projects: to work with some families, then discover the community through them.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he has worked in Gaza, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Venezuela, etc. Most of his work is focused on the slums of the developing world, and as a part of that, in 2013 he undertook his most dangerous trip – he went to El Salvador, the country with the highest murder rate in the world. Until El Salvador, Adam has avoided gang culture. But, when he heard that the two biggest gangs (Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18 Street (Barrio 18) in the country called a truce, he hoped it would give him enough time to understand what’s behind the shootings – see into the people, not the guns.

Now, the truce is over and violence is raging on the streets again. For his brief time there, he visited gang members in Penal de Ciudad Barrios, a prison for MS-13 members. The prison is guarded by the army, but the 2600 inmates run it freely as no one has the guts to enter. The prisoners have their own bakery, workshops and even a hospital. Adam Hinton has made a book with portraits of 20 heavily tattooed inmates. “I find their faces quite passive. They were really warm to me. We just sat and joked,” he says. He was completely safe inside as he has been invited by the bosses who run the prison. Hinton has posted pictures and a short film from within the prison.

“I’d always avoided gangs, but noticed in Brazil how integrated they were with the favela society. It’s a love-hate relationship: they’d be better off without them, but need them to protect themselves from other gangs and from the police. I wanted to go to El Salvador and talk to gang members, but not about ‘How brutal are you? How many guys have you killed?’ None of that knucklehead stuff. I just wanted to ask why they joined the gangs and what the gangs did,” Adam says.

Both MS-13 and Barrio 18 were created when Salvadorian exiles fled to Los Angeles during the 1980s and the civil war. Around 1992, they were sent back, bringing the gang culture with them. Hinton wants to present the story of the civil war and the class conflict in El Salvador. He doesn’t see the gangs as violent – their violence, as he thinks, stems from a divided and impoverished society.


In the Las Victorias district in San Salvador, the country’s capital, he had lunch with a gang boss who had just had a young informant killed. He also attended the wake for a stillborn child who had died because his mother, in prison on a drugs charge, was not allowed to go to hospital in time for the delivery. He witnessed the funeral of a man, not a member of MS-13, who was shot by Barrio 18 just because he lived in an MS-13 district. “I found it shocking that here I am, in a truce, in this community for a week, and they have two gang-related deaths,” Adam says.

Adam doesn’t want to emphasize the violence – he’s trying to present the suffering and humanity of Las Victorias’ residents. “Rather than seeing these places as threats and full of bad people, my idea is to say: here’s a family; they want the same things as we do; they want a job, a decent home, a better life for their kids. There are basic human needs that everyone has the right to. A lot of my sympathies are with these gang members. They’re there; they’re trapped; there’s nothing else they can do.”


Hinton himself comes from a poor and dysfunctional childhood. His mother, a schizophrenic who worked in a bar, stabbed another woman and was put in prison early in his life. However, he doesn’t think that his background is responsible for the desire to document the suffering of the marginalized. But, it helps to explain his lack of panic when having a lunch with murderous gang lords. “One of the reasons I don’t get freaked out in those situations,” he says, “is because of the things I saw when I was younger.”

When asked if the personal projects keep him sane during all the commercial ads, he replied: “They’re what keep me sane,full stop. I’m driven to do them, and there’s the hope that they will somehow make a difference. But maybe I’m being naive.”

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