Media reports about MS-13 and other maras depict the members bearing archetypal tattoos and speaking in trademark slang. Not all gang members are so easily identifiable. The gangs remain rooted in the streets but have now penetrated every layer of Salvadoran society. Gangs have mutated from youth groups defending neighbourhood turf in the 1980s to hierarchical organisations that coerce, threaten and kill. Many members and sympathisers, particularly from MS-13, become teachers, lawyers, local government officials and even police officers who serve the gang’s interests. Their influence has grown so great that every major political party in El Salvador and Honduras has at some point paid gangs during elections.Unfortunately, especially for young me, many Salvadorans must fear the police as much as they do the maras.
The International Crisis Group has a helpful brief on Life Under Gang Rule in El Salvador that brings out many of the issues causing people from the Northern Triangle to flee the region. Gang violence is pervasive. Salvadorans avoid talking about gangs in public out of fear that the wrong people will overhear their conversations. Gangs control citizens' every move - where they can live, work, and socialize. And gang members are not just kid on the streets with tattoos.