clarke_giles_el_salvador_vice_prison-pit

Giles Clarke is a photographer with the bit between his teeth. Last summer, he wandered into a story about squalid cages being used by El Salvadorian police to hold men accused of gang-related crimes. The pictures — published in the August 2013 issue of VICE — caused some outrage, a lot of gawking and general throwing of hands in the air.

(Click on an image to see it larger.)

It was an unplanned chain of events that led Clarke to the stinking cages. It began on a Saturday night in February of last year when Clarke’s fixer, a local breakdancer who works with youth to divert them from crime, took him to the police station in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 outside of San Salvador.

”I told the police I wanted to ride along and went straight out into Barrio-18 territory,” says Clarke “Bare in mind these gangs are armed to the teeth and control huge swathes of the towns. Armed police units are joined by the military.”

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

At the time of Clarke’s visit, there was a fragile peace truce between Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang) and MS-13  in place. Mostly, the night was eerily quiet but it was later punctuated by violence.

“We responded to a shoot-out at a traffic junction. The shooter had fled and not hit anyone but units swarmed the area. I was told to lie down behind one cop till all clear given. It turned out drunk driver had got in the face of a friend and the friend had popped off a few shots to shut him up. Then we spent another couple of hours searching, pulling kids and gangers over.”

The next day, Clarke returned to the station. A new female officer responsible for caring for victims of domestic abuse asked her captain, “Have you shown him the cages, yet?” The captain of 17 years – who was a bit more enlightened than his rank and file (and also a surfer and guitar enthusiast) — liked to talk about his work and saw value in showing a foreign journalist the cages.

“The captain was very aware of what he was doing [by letting me photograph the cages]. He has a big heart for the issues he is facing,” says Clarke. “The El Salvador legal system is a disaster — with the explosion of gang violence in the last 15 years, the lack of new prisons along with the huge rise in US deportation rates — the justice system can’t handle it so these cages are springing up everywhere. 35 men in each one.”

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

There were three cages at Quezaltepeque police station — one for Barrio 18, one for MS-13 and one for “common criminals.”

“I took the photo (top) that ended up being the VICE cover shot within 10 seconds of seeing it. I knew it was important. That visual hit me first, then came the smell,” says Clarke. “They shit in the back of the cages. It’s fucking disgusting. Stinking hot. It must have been 95 degrees in there.”

The police officers didn’t want Clarke there and were getting nervous, so he worked quickly and started gleaning as much information as he could from the prisoners.

“One kid (below) had been there 17 months. He was there the longest. Waiting for sluggish El Salvador system. Some of the prisoners have not been charged,” says Clarke.

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

Another prisoner, in the common criminals cage, was a army veteran with one leg who’d been locked up for protesting the loss of his veterans’ benefits. Most locals don’t know about the cages (CLarke’s fixer didn’t) but some must as the police do not feed the prisoners. Families and friends must bring in food for them. The prisoners spend their time shredding clothes and hand-weaving hammocks to maximize used space and make sleeping on top of one another a fraction less harrowing.

“Every Thursday, they are shackled, brought out the cages, searched, and sprayed down. The police find drugs. They get in there. You can assume guards are paid off.”

Clarke learnt that most of the gang members had been deported from Los Angeles. Many had fled civil wars, or their families had, and they’d lived in East Los Angeles, Long Beach or other parts of L.A.

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

El Salvadorian gangs are an American product. After serving time in California prisons. many gang members were deported back to El Salvador along with their social tensions, survival modes and high violence. There’s no doubting that Barrio 18 and MS-13 have committed heinous crimes. So far down the rabbit hole, only truces, the reduction of poverty and societal buy-in provides a way out for many of these men. The situation is confounding.

“They all read the bible, just like reading the newspaper,” says Clarke. “I was very surprised. That mixture of high crime and fervent religion is confusing.”

© Giles Clarke

The issues are complex and transborder. Clarke shows us the worst of El Salvador but before we condemn the authorities abroad and dismiss this as someone else’s problem, it might be worth bearing in mind that America has its own cages.

FORTHCOMING GILES CLARKE SERIES ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

Having lived in the U.S. since the mid-nineties, British-born Clarke has always been aware of the abuse in, and uncontrolled expansion of, American prisons but this story in El Salvador ignited an interest in cages at home. Since this story, Clarke has been photographing in prisons here and abroad.

This is the first of a series of posts featuring Clarke’s work. Prison Photography will bring publishing original images and b-roll from Clarke’s other prison stories, always alongside his biting commentary.

GILES CLARKE

Giles Clarke is a social documentary photographer based in New York City. He is a featured photographer represented by Reportage by Getty and aWHITELABELproduct. A wandering photojournalist and frequent contributor to VICE, his travels in 2014 have taken him from Guatemala to the Netherlands; from Chiapas to Columbia; and from old frontlines in Sarajevo to new frontlines in Ukraine. 

All images: Giles Clarke/Getty images

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