Photo: Former gang member gets tattoos removed
In the U.S., tattoos have become relatively mainstream and somewhat accepted, but in countries like El Salvador, tattoos are mostly signs of gang affiliations. Now, thanks to free government laser treatments, those wishing to put their gang days behind them can.
“The culture here is that whoever has tattoos is a criminal,” said one former gang member.
As former members try to start new lives and get on the straight and narrow, they are often confronted with the reality of their pasts. Potential employers often shut the door on anyone with visible tattoos, making it difficult for past gang members to get legitimate jobs. Even getting on buses causes panic, with people either changing seats when they see them or getting off the bus completely. Gangs have firebombed buses as part of their campaigns for extortion and turf.
Gladis Pacheco, a psychologist at the Tattoo Removal Clinic run by the National Council of Public Security said, “People panic when they see these guys. In this country, is it just a primordial requirement to get rid of one’s tattoos.”
The majority of those with tattoos in El Salvador are in the province of the two big street gangs, the MS-13 and the 18th Street, but eight years ago, the time of the heavily tattooed gang members began its end.
In 2003, the first of a series of mano dura (hard hand) law enforcement crackdowns intended to breakdown criminal gangs began, as the U.S. was deporting Salvadoran gang members in droves. From July 2003 to June 2004, police arrested around 18,000 gang members, though only five percent saw any prison time.
Since being heavily tattooed was a give-away to police, gang leaders began telling members to restrict their tattoos to places less visible. Previously, young gangsters would get tattoos on their faces and hands to serve as angry warnings to any who opposed them.
“They aren’t getting so many tattoos now,” said National Civil Police commissioner Gersan Perez Mendez. “They definitely don’t put them on their hands and faces.”
As the violence in South and Central America continues, those with the tattooed reminders of their past lives are grateful for the removal clinics.
Those entering the clinics tend to be 20 to 30 years old. Each tattoo takes from eight to 10 sessions to be completely gone, but Dr. Maydee Ramirez said, “You can see a difference after six sessions.”
She also said that the number of sessions depends on the age of the tattoo, how big it is, and color of the ink, black being the easiest to remove.
Though removing gang-related tattoos is a major step in reforming their lives, Luis Lechiguero, a member of a European Union delegation, which helps finance programs to reduce gang activity, says it is only one part of the process.
“Getting rid of tattoos alone isn’t enough to get you back to normality,” he said. “You need a job, family and community support, and individual willpower.”
Sadly, though removal of the tattoos is a good thing for reformed gangsters, it is not without risk, as removing them is forbidden by the gangs without strict approval.
“If they find out…,” said Lechiguero, “they will come after you.”