At age 13, drunk and in a dark room, a sewing needle and thread drew the first images on Luis’s skin. “It’s the first thing that defines you as a member. It’s what identifies you as a group and what the other groups use to identify you.”
Over two decades later, Luis won’t say to which mara—a common word for gang in Central America—the blue ink connected him. Now, his imposing frame splays out from a small chair in the loud, dimly lit room of a rehab center in downtown Guatemala City. With a crooked smile, he recalls the pride the new body art bestowed on him.
“I couldn’t back down anymore or bow out. I was now part of that group. And I would be with them until death,” he said. Now 36 and trying to get clean, tattoos on his arms, back, and torso explain Luis’s past to even the most casual observer.
The Mara 18 and the rivaling Mara Salvatrucha have vied for control of Guatemalan streets for over 20 years. Formed in Los Angeles during the 1980s, they were made up of largely Central American men who had grown up undocumented in the united States, disenfranchised by devastating civil wars in the region.
Mass deportations in the 1990s expelled waves of these men from U.S. prisons and streets. U.S. raised gang members returned to a homeland they barely knew. With weak political infrastructure and fresh from decades of war, Central America played perfect host to predatory American gang sensibilities. Growing in strength, numbers, and organization, the maras devised a system that would allow them to identify each other on the streets and communicate with their imprisoned associates—all the while keeping hidden from authorities.
Groomed in jails both in the united States and Central America—where secrecy and discretion were built into daily communication—they became proficient in informal jargon. Gang communication spread from prisons to the street.
For one, a specific brand of tattoos—prominent and prolific—started to become synonymous with gang life. Bodies and faces became canvases for their life stories—some rendered in careful detail, others in amateur drawings.
“Tattoos represent their gang, their cell within that gang. They honor their women and their fallen homies. They show their drug use and chronicle prison life. They talk about the gangster lifestyle, their suffering,” said a high ranking official of Guatemala’s anti-gang police, who asked that he not be named for safety reasons.
But at its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, gang culture’s code of communication had already gone far beyond tattoos.
Hand signals from the international hand sign alphabet were used to pass on messages from prison or identify oneself at street level. While imprisoned in El Salvador, a leader of the Mara 18 coded an alphabet to communicate from prison. Each letter was assigned a symbol and written into orders for hits on police or rival gangs. Authorities eventually cracked the code—and their clandestine communication had to adapt.
Like many places, graffiti and murals still adorn marginalized neighborhoods in Guatemala. They delineate territories, honor fallen gangsters, and warn rivals to stay away. On home turf, as constant lookouts spot police activity or other intruders, slang words rifle through the barrio, alerting of the danger.
Gang members’ shoes, the color of the laces, and even the way they are laced conveyed gang affiliation. Innocuous details to an untrained eye can mean death in mara life; ignoring, misinterpreting or overlooking subtleties of codes come with consequences.
“The Guatemalan mareros did not invent the wheel,” said a U.S. embassy official who also asked not to be identified by name. “When you look at the gang situation in Guatemala, you are seeing an international problem.”
A spike in mara violence in 2004 resulted in a set of laws known as mano dura—essentially a hard crackdown on gangs. The election of former general Otto Perez Molina to Guatemala’s presidency in 2011 only strengthened these judicial tendencies.
Today, according to Central American courts, having visible tattoos, dressing a certain way, and speaking in slang often suffice in proving one’s affiliation with the maras. Hundreds of suspected gangsters across Central America continue to be rounded up on sight and imprisoned in the aftermath of the mano dura.
The maras are adapting. Officials say gang members, in most cases, have resorted to less obvious expression. Face tattoos gave way to more discreet ones under the tongue or in between toes. But, mostly, the informal methods seem to have given way to more established ways of communication and expression. A weak and corrupt police and judicial system means that today, gang leaders imprisoned in Guatemala don’t need codes or signals to pass on the majority of orders: they simply use their cell phones.
Permanently branded as a street thug by the ink on his body, Luis faces an immense obstacle as he tries to leave the gang life behind. He is thankful his tattoos can be covered when he is in a public setting. Asked why he never tattooed his face during his decades as an active gang member, he thinks about it, then responds. “Doing that is like saying that the world no longer matters.”