Gang Tattoos passe

Since anti-gang laws were enforced in Honduras and El Salvador and series of killings in Guatemala were committed by citizen vigilante groups and security forces, gangs are ditching tattoos to duck the radar and have resorted to more subtle, low profile ways of identifying themselves as members of criminal organizations, and performing extreme makeovers. Today, gang members with tattooed faces are either dead, in prison or in hiding.

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Mara gang member ‘Smoking,’ 25, prison portrait in Chimaltenango, Guatemala.

Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Throughout Central America and the U.S., the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs are known for their audacious tactics, including beheading their enemies and covering entire buildings and even their bodies with gang symbols.

Anti-gang operatives are saying these typically uneducated and aimless youth have begun recruiting high school and college students, and escalating their criminal activities from minor robberies to large-scale extortion, prostitution, car theft and kidnappings.

The gangs first formed in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, recruiting Salvadorans who fled to the U.S. to escape civil war. After many of the members were deported for crimes committed in the U.S. in the ’90’s, the gangs established themselves in Central America.

There are believed to be as many as 30,000 Maras in the U.S., mainly in Los Angeles, and about 100,000 in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, according to U.S. federal authorities.

Distinguishing themselves by tattoos head to toe with threatening symbols and hanging out in large crowds on street corners, their goal was to intimidate and terrify regular citizens and rival gangs alike.

But that has recently changed after El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras adopted tough anti-gang policies, including graffiti-removal campaigns and harsh punishments for gang-related crimes. Many youths have been arrested or killed, allegedly in operations by police or citizen’s groups.

“These days we can’t even go out onto the street, where the police look at us and we end up dead.” said 25 year old Giovanni Estrada — aka ‘Little Crazy’ — an imprisoned gang member with a tattooed face. “That’s why we tell (new gang members) not to paint their faces.”

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Mara gang member Jose Daniel Galindo — aka 22 ‘Criminal — prison portrait
in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Sammy Rivera, a security adviser for the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and Jose Luis Tovar, deputy police chief in El Salvador, both say the gangs’ increasingly lucrative pursuits have attracted high school and college students looking to make a buck, versus the dropouts and other gang members who mainly sought to satisfy their need to belong.

“Before they would rob a bus and could take away some cell phones and a little money.” Rivera said. “Now they have a steady income from the extortion they carry out in their territories.”

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Mara gang member Hector Giovani Estrada Martinez — aka ‘Liro Crazzy’ —
prison portrait in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Woman Gives Up Everything for Gang

Apparently seduced by lifestyle and money, Ingrid Vicente abandoned her husband, kids, government job and law studies to join a gang in 2002. As a secretary at the Finance Ministry, she earned 2,000 quetzales a month and doubled that in 1 day as a gang member.

Ingrid didn’t look like a typical Mara, so she was able to easily smuggled guns from El Salvador, earning about $650 a day. She also helped uneducated gang members figure out how much they could extort from storekeepers without bankrupting them.

“These guys don’t know what is possible.” Ingrid told The Associated Press. “They didn’t even know how to drive a car or a motorcycle, so I showed them how to drive.”

After discovering the cost and bearing 2 more children with a gang member, she decided to quit. Her gang killed her brother and boyfriend in retaliation. She’s now a witness, testifying against the gang.

Gangs have been forced to recruit people like Ingrid to keep a step ahead of the government’s zero-tolerance policies, which have forced them underground and into new areas of crime.

No longer able to conduct blatant robberies, the gangs have turned to “other activities that require a better level of organization.” said Rivera.

Even though the graffiti is gone and the walls are blank, “We still hear gunshots every day.” said Guatemala City resident Aura Escobar.

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Mara gang member ‘Raton,’ 21 — prison portrait in Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Tattoo Removal to Help Begin New Life
Gang members hoping to build a new life often look to erase the memories of their criminal lifestyle by removing their tattoos, and advocates of tattoo removal say that eradicating the gang tattoos helps them to do so.

But the well has dried up for many tattoo removal programs that were once providing grants and hospital funds and donated time from medical staff has been dying out.

Dr. Paul Zwiebel, the physician in charge of the Swedish program Swedish Medical Center established in 1993 in Colorado said, “At first, we treated hundreds of kids. Swedish was a very willing partner. Without them the program could not have happened.”

The procedure costs between $2,000 to $5,000 per tattoo, according to Zwiebel, and sometimes more for larger tattoos.

The program provided free treatments if the patient provided 25 hours of community service, made written promise to make a lifetime commitment to leave the gang lifestyle and describe how tattoos were holding them back from achieving their goals.

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Mara gang member ‘Psycho 23′ — prison portrait in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Dr. Zwiebel says the procedure involves treating the tattoo with a laser that breaks down the ink in the skin. The body then removes the ink through the immune system. It generally takes several sessions to treat a small tattoo, and more sessions for larger tattoos. The procedure can be painful and may result in some scarring.

Julie Lonborg, director of planning, business development and marketing at Swedish notes that while the program was popular in its inception, it became plagued with no-shows for the costly and time-intensive procedure.

“There was a lack of interest from the community.” Lonborg said. “There were more no-shows than appointments. It became a waste of time.”

Rev. Leon Kelly, the director of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives in Denver said, “We were trying to give an alternative to folks who wanted to change their life, but a lot of our people weren’t willing to follow through. The funding went away.”

Terrance Roberts, a former Bloods gang member and director of The Prodigal Son Initiative in Aurora still has his gang tattoos. “I looked into (tattoo removal) for myself, but it was a lot of running around.” he said. “It (tattoo removal) can be a diversion from other, more successful programs.”

Gang tattoos often are used to tell the world the bearer is proud of his affiliation and his neighborhood. But the permanent etchings are much easier applied than removed. One can cover them up with another tattoo or have them removed by laser — a painful, expensive process that’s frequently beyond the financial reach of most former gang members.

But when former gang members attempt to put their lives back together, find jobs and detach themselves from the stigma of gang life, they soon learn that removing the tattoos is very costly. Some tattoo removal businesses charges as much as $8,000 to remove a single tattoo.

Most tattoo parlors steer clear of doing gang-related tattoos for fear of being found out where the work was done by rival gang members, presenting a serious threat to their business, said San Diego tattoo artist Gordo Lost. Most gang tattoos are done by someone in the gang member’s neighborhood, or in jail, he added.

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Mara gang member Mauricio Jose Solorzano, 23 — aka ‘Pinky’ — prison portrait
in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Job-stoppers
Once gang members are out of prison or decide to go straight, the past can haunt those who bear ink on their skin, especially if the tattoo is somewhere visible even when fully clothed.

Tattoos on the forearms, hands or face are called ‘job-stoppers’ said Lost. While covering up gang-related tattoos is an option, even tattoos that have nothing to do with gangs can make it difficult to find work he said, adding that he often advises new clients not to get tattooed on parts of their body that are visible to potential employers.

Released from prison after serving 19 months for auto theft, Rivera — a former Mesa Locos gang member — said he is doing his best to leave gang life behind. Rivera has more than 15 tattoos altogether with Mesa tattoos on various parts of his body, including his neck and fingers.

But, “it’s hard to find a job on my own cause of my record and because of my tattoos.” Rivera said, adding that he now works part time for his girlfriend’s father.

Some of the body art he had done in jail, others he had done by friends.

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Mara gang member Luis Alfredo Madrid, 22 — aka ‘Smiling’ — prison portrait

in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo AP / Rodrigo Abd

Tattoo artist Obed Mejia of Escondido Body Art, said that he was a gang member in San Marcos many years ago, but left gang life behind. He said he got his first lessons in tattooing from an uncle who had just gotten out of prison and knew the techniques.