W+K London are excited to have a new stairway exhibition courtesy of Wyatt, Clarke and Jones by photographer Adam Hinton.
Here's what Adam says about the work:
Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrios of El Salvador.
I decided to travel to El Salvador as part of a long-term project I’m working on about life in the ever-growing Urban Slums that an increasing number of the worlds population find themselves in.
I’d heard about a gang truce that had been negotiated between the two rival gangs in the country, Mara Salvatrucha (or MS) and the 18 Street gang (or simply the 18). Gangs had been something I had avoided up till now, as I wanted to show what life was like for the vast majority of people who have to live in these environments. I didn’t want to dramatise the subject by showing hard-core gang members and follow the drugs and violence stereotype. However when I heard about a truce between the two rival gangs in El Salvador on the BBC World Service it made me stop and think about it.
El Salvador has had a history of extreme violence going back to the civil war.
This was between the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FNLM and the US backed government and military. Ten’s of thousands were killed and 20% of the population displaced. After the so called peace accord many refugees returned for the USA were the young men had become versed in the gang culture that existed in LA at the time. They brought this culture with them in the form of two gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS and the 18th Street gang or 18th. In the Barrios the death squads continued to roam the streets and execute ‘trouble makers’. The gangs formed as a protective reaction to this violence and the extreme poverty that many communities found themselves in and in violent revelry to each other. In the last year leaders of the two gangs got together in an attempt to halt the seemingly endless violence and killing and have agreed a truce between themselves.
For many of these communities gangs form an interlude part of the infrastructure and often dictate how the places are run. The truce gave me the chance to talk to gang members about the reasons behind them and also for me to add another chapter to my on going Urban Slums project. I decided to go and investigate the situation in El Salvador.
What I found when I arrived were communities that were almost totally lifeless in terms of daily activity. The communities seemed almost semi abandoned and my fixers Alex and Uzziel told me that they all suffered from extreme poverty and economic activity was practically zero. The unemployment rate in El Salvador is 50% and in that situation you can bet as always it’s the poorest that fair the worst. I was soon introduced to some young gang members in one of the communities, Las Victorias, who were very relaxed about me hanging out with them and taking photographs. The guys seemed to accept my presence and just carried on as usual. As I spent more time with them I got a clearer picture of the conditions they found themselves in and discussed this with them and my fixers Alex and Uzziel as I worked. It became very clear that these guys really didn’t have much option if they wanted to do anything beyond unemployment or the most poorly paid menial jobs, of which there are practically none. Whilst I was working with them they never asked me for money, what they wanted was food, fried chicken to be precise. This was because they are very poor, drug dealers and extortionists don’t live the life these guy’s do. Chatting to Uzziel who was one of the senior guerilla commanders for the FNLM during the civil war I told him that 20 years ago these guys would have been fighting the government in that war. He agreed and it became clear that whilst these guys are caught up killing each other in a vicious gang war it stops them getting political and turning their guns on the government. The gang war provides a cover for the continuing war on the poor waged by the rich and powerful. It felt to me that the gang war was the dark conclusion of the failure of the FNLM to seize power in the civil war. No meaningful social and economic reforms had taken place, the rich and powerful remained and these young guys in the frontline just rot and die.
I only spent a week in El Salvador focused around Las Victorias, and even though there is a truce on there were two gang related deaths there. On the second day we where told that an imprisoned young woman, Valeria Michel Hercules, girlfriend of a local MS member had delivered a still born baby. They named the child Gabriel Alexander. This was apparently due to the fact that the guards at the prison had deliberately delayed her admission to hospital despite her plea’s to be allowed to go and that the child died before she arrived. That night the child was delivered to the community for the wake. Rumor had it that Valeria the mother would not be granted day release for the funeral. The community was furious and explained to me that this is the way the authorities treat them, like dogs. My fixers Alex and Uzziel were connected to the setting up of the truce and had close connections with one of the negotiators who had the ear of the Minister for Prisons. The next day several calls were to various departments and eventually it was agreed to allow Valeria to attend the last 20 minutes of the wake but not the actual burial. We were assured there would be an internal investigation of the events that lead up to the death of Gabriel, though nothing has been reported so far. It was clear that if it had not been for our presents Valeria would never have attended the wake and the whole matter would have gone unreported. That is how the system works for these people.
The next day we where given permission to visit one of the country’s most notorious prisons, Penal de Ciudad Barrios. This is a prison just for MS members. It was built for 800 inmates but currently houses 2600. The prison is guarded from the outside by the army with prison staff manning the entrance and check point. Once you enter you soon relies that there are no guards inside the place, the MS themselves manages it. Walking around it’s difficult to know that it’s a prison. The corridors are filled with men standing around chatting, watching football in the central exercise square or playing chess. There are food stalls and the heavy buzz of hundreds of conversations in a very confided space. All this exists the filth of a dilapidated prison with it’s foul smells and stagnant pools, whilst the men stand around aimless with nothing to do except kill what must seem like an infinity of minutes, hours, days. We met up with Carlos, one of the spokesmen for the MS who is campaigning for prisoner’s rights and for the basic needs the prisoners such as simple health care and training. They have managed to organize a space that acts as a hospital. It’s basically an empty storeroom with a dozen dirty mattresses on the floor. If you're ill you go there and hope for the best, I didn’t see any medical staff in the entire place. They’ve also managed to set up basic art, sewing and woodworking rooms and some of the inmates make toys and furniture. It’s a start but a very small one. Carlos is also involved in the truce negotiations and has a very sincere desire to see an end to the violence, but he understands that this won’t happen without real economic and social support for the communities blighted by poverty. As I leave the prison it’s clear that this is a place they literally dump you and forget about you and every inmate is made to feel just that.
The day before I left we heard of another death in the community. This time a non MS member, Reynaldo Melgar age 25, had been shot at a bar simply because he lived in Las Victorias, an MS community. He had been beaten up and then shot at point blank range in the chest. His ID card was placed on his chest. The killers do this to show that a person has been killed because of where they came from.
Two days later he was buried. Once again I ended up in the same crematory as the one the stillborn child had been buried in only four days previously. I wondered just much of a routine this must be for the people of Las Victorias.
For more images check out Adam's website: http://www.adamhinton.net/
Exhibition courtesy of: http://wyattclarkejones.com/