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article imageEx-gang members in El Salvador erase tattoos from violent past

By Carlos Mario Marquez (AFP)     Jul 9, 2016 in World

In many countries, tattoos are simple adornment, a small sign of unconventionality, of minor rebellion.

In El Salvador, however, they are usually the mark of gang members who live -- and often die -- by codes of violence.

That's why the first thing some of those looking to escape gangs' clutches do is erase the ink in their skin.

Jose Antonio is one of them.

"I have to get rid of my tattoos for my own safety," he said after 27 minutes and 3,966 laser pulses directed at rubbing out a tattoo on his chest. His first name has been modified because of fears for his safety.

In El Salvador, he says, "tattoos bring with them many problems, even death."

Jose Antonio belonged to the feared Mara Salvatrucha, one of the region's most powerful gangs, also known as MS-13.

The criminal groups, which formed in the 1990s from gang members deported from the mean streets of Los Angeles, seek to rule over big swathes of El Salvador.

A former gang member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang shows scars from a deleted tattoo during a...
A former gang member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang shows scars from a deleted tattoo during a tattoo removal session
Marvin Recinos, AFP

Murder, coercive conscription and extortion have made the Central American country one of the world's most dangerous.

Tattoos are ritualized for gang members, providing a permanent sign of loyalty to one group or another. Generally, the ink etchings include a murder, shown by a tear, or the death of a loved one, shown by a cross.

Jose Antonio, dark-skinned and heavyset, was inducted into his gang as a boy and spent 14 of his 38 years behind bars for homicide and robbery.

He got out of prison in 2012 to find himself caught up in fierce turf wars.

Removing his tattoos, he realized, was a matter of life or death: of the 40 MS-13 members in what used to be his local grouping, just four are still alive.

That's why he went to a specialized clinic in the capital San Salvador the government opened 13 years ago that uses lasers to erase tattoos from gang members and prostitutes for free.

Among the images he wanted to remove were markings on his arms with different names and numbers, the most prominent of which is the "MS" that denotes its loyalists. He was with them a dozen years.

Jose Antonio initially tried to obscure the "MS" markings by adding other tattoos and wearing long sleeves.

Then he had the ones on his arms erased by laser so he could wear short sleeves. Now he's having tattoos on his chest removed.

- Painstaking removal -

In the clinic, Doctor Mayde Ramirez, 40, wears gloves and special protective glasses as she cools the area of the tattoo then gets to work on it with a pistol-shaped laser, millimeter by painstaking millimeter.

The tattoo removal project  promoted by the government of Salvador  is attended daily by dozens of p...
The tattoo removal project, promoted by the government of Salvador, is attended daily by dozens of people - mostly young former gang members seeking to put an end to the stigma that associates them with the dreaded gang
Marvin Recinos, AFP

Once the treatment is done, she applies vaseline and a bandage, letting the skin recover before the next session in a month's time.

Between 2003 and 2012, more than 17,000 Salvadorans went under the laser light. But the scheme was suspended at the end of 2014 because the lasers used became obsolete.

A $210,000 subsidy from Taiwan allowed the program to resume in April this year.

That was welcome, Ramirez says, because people with tattoos in El Salvador suffer "discrimination and stigmatization."

A psychologist who counsels patients, and who declined to be identified, said a gang tattoo is a symbol marking "the border between life and death, prison and freedom, a job and joblessness."

"Tattoos are viewed badly," confirmed Miguel Montenegro, coordinator for the non-governmental Commission for Human Rights in El Salvador.

"Even people who have nothing at all to do with the gangs run a risk just by having tattoos because of the ignorance of authorities that associate them with criminal groups," he said.

The San Salvador laser clinic also accepts ordinary citizens, like Jose Valencia, a 51-year-old who was forced to get a tattoo depicting a puma by a commanding officer when he was a soldier in the country's civil war during the 1990s.

Any soldier without a puma could not go out on operations, the officer had declared. So "all my comrades had to get tattoos without really knowing what they were doing at the time."

Like the ex-gang members, Valencia hopes removing his tattoos will help enable him to leave behind a dark and hostile underworld.

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