Covered in tattoos, can El Salvador's gangs reintegrate into society?

With tattoos even on their faces, members of El Salvador's rival Ms-13 and 18th Street gangs may not be able to hide alliances they've forsaken. That's just one challenge they face.

Luis Romero/AP
An imprisoned 18th Street 'mara' gang member in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador.

What happens when your past life of crime is literally written across your face? For gang members in El Salvador, their characteristic excess of tattoos often betrays their affiliation: 18th Street or Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13).

In El Salvador, gang affiliation – inked across faces and forearms – is difficult to hide, and the culture extends beyond members to their spouses, children, and extended families. Theirs is an identity that can't be legislated away.

So what can be done?

That question prompted a frank discussion about reintegration during talks that led to the March truce between the 18th Street and MS-13 gangs, says Raul Mijango, who helped facilitate the nonviolence pact.

The former legislator and ex-guerrilla envisions a day when gang members drop crime and retain only their subculture.

Mr. Mijango says he told the men during the talks, "If you quit operating as a criminal structure, and remain associated for reasons of identity or solidarity – not harming society – then what's the problem?"

Carlos Mojica, an imprisoned leader of the 18th Street gang, says that vision is possible.

"We [gang veterans] have concluded there is no future in having thousands and thousands of our compañeros incarcerated for 40, 50, 70 years without any hope of getting out or preparing for a future," Mr. Mojica says.

The future is at risk not just for gang members but their families and communities, too. Gang affiliation creates a web of association that even affects whether kids can attend a public school without facing death threats.

But eight months of relative peace produced by the MS-13 and 18th Street truce may not be enough for Salvadoran society to view gang members as anything but killers and criminals.

Economic opportunity is crucial to a sustainable peace process, observers say, yet it's almost impossible for gang members here to get jobs.

The private sector has historically kept its distance from the issue, but Mijango says several prominent local businesspeople are backing rehabilitation efforts. Although the projects are still in their infancy, the aim is to create programs to teach, train, and support gang members to become entrepreneurs in small businesses such as bakeries or mechanics' shops.

"[If] we don't combat the country's structural problems, above all the situation of marginalization and poverty ... we have a perfect breeding ground for gangs," says Douglas Moreno, vice minister of security.

Mr. Moreno, who was previously director of the prison system, says the country is trying new approaches to its penal system, including improving physical conditions in prisons and creating rehabilitation programs and alternatives to incarceration, notably an electronically monitored parole that could alleviate overcrowded jails.

When people doubt whether gang members can change, Moreno says, "I tell [them], 'Don't look at the gang members. Look at the next generation that is being lost.' "

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