Governments across the region have adopted popular get-tough measures against gangs, including laws that make it easy for police to detain people with telltale tattoos. Critics said such methods, some of which have been ruled unconstitutional, had not stopped the gangs, but rather forced them to disperse to rural areas and to other countries.
The estimated 25,000 to 50,000 gang members in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were once concentrated in urban areas, officials said. But gangs are now showing up in the most remote corners of Central America. In addition to committing crimes in urban areas, Figueroa said, they are now terrorizing rural farmers and stealing their crops.
La Esperanza inmates mill around the yard Aug. 18, shortly after the riot. El Salvador's prison population has doubled in the past five years. Forty percent of the prisoners are gang members.
(Luis Romero -- AP)
'I Need My Gang'
"I like to be in the gang. I am proud of it," said Wilmer Antonio Salmeron Molina, 22, who is serving time on drug charges. He talked as he sat in a one-story, whitewashed prison in the town of Cojutepeque, 20 miles east of San Salvador, the capital.
Until a few weeks ago, the prison was home to 46 non-gang inmates, a quiet lockup in the center of a quiet town, its white facade blending in with the small corner grocery and nearby tailor shop. But it now forms part of the government's effort to separate gang members from other prisoners. The 1930s jail houses 365 Mara 18 members, crammed into communal cells. Nearly all were imprisoned at La Esperanza during the riot.
"Because of my gang, I have something to eat," Salmeron said, sitting in a small prison office with two armed guards close by.
Salmeron, who has big, caramel-colored eyes and "18" tattooed on his face in numbers that stretch from his forehead to his chin, said he was born in El Salvador but grew up in Los Angeles. He said he was 14 when he joined Mara 18, a group that grew out of the city's 18th Street Gang.
"My mother used to hit me with a belt buckle and wires, and my father didn't want anything to do with me," he said in English, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. The gang became his family, he said: "I ran away from home, and they gave me money, a place to sleep. Maybe it was the wrong step I took, but I had no options."
He said he spent five years in a youth detention center in California on drug charges and was deported to El Salvador after serving his sentence. His relatives wanted nothing to do with him when they saw his tattooed face, he said, so he sought out members of Mara 18 in San Salvador.
"I am no one without my gang," Salmeron said. "My future? Tell me: What exactly are my options? I cannot do life alone. I have nobody. I need my gang."
Joining Mara 18 involves an initiation, Salmeron said matter-of-factly. Would-be members must prove they are willing to kill a member of a rival gang. "They give you a gun and see if you have the guts to do something with it," he said, smiling nervously. He declined to say whether he had ever killed anyone, but he spoke with disgust about the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang. He said one of its members shot his girlfriend in the face, and she lost an eye.
"They kill girls and kids," he said. "We are not like that."
Just before returning to the prison yard, where he would rejoin hundreds of his gang brethren, Salmeron answered a question about how he was coping with jail. "I cry a lot," he said. "My mother, my brothers, my sister, no one has contact with me."
'We Will Go to War'
Jaime Martinez Ventura, director of El Salvador's Center for Penal Studies, said many gang members are trapped. They want out of the life of violence but face the constant danger of being killed by members of rival gangs. There are an extraordinary number of youths in El Salvador -- the median age is 21 -- and there are not enough jobs, Martinez said. Many of the poorest teenagers live in broken homes, often because one or both of their parents work in the United States.
Overcrowding -- 30 to 40 gang members are often crammed into prison spaces meant for 10 -- has "radicalized" the problem, Martinez said. While some are jailed for homicide, the majority are behind bars for selling crack or committing robbery or lesser crimes, including "illicit association," a new charge that makes it unlawful for two gang members to be together. He said youths join gangs because they have "no place to play, no decent school, no jobs," and many learn serious crime inside the prisons, where drug use is rampant.
The crackdowns are sending a message to the gangs, he said: "It's war. The government is using all force, now even soldiers. Their feeling is, 'If the government is going to declare war, we will go to war.' "
Ortiz, 71, whose nephew was due to be released soon from La Esperanza, said she raised the boy after his father died and his mother fled the country during the civil war. She visited him at the prison every Sunday. Her last visit was on Aug. 22, four days after the riot.
Carrying his favorite meal, steamed chicken and potatoes, the gray-haired woman, who worked 30 years making cookies for a bakery, also brought along sweets and breads. She cried as she recalled waiting alone in the hot prison courtyard. Finally someone came with the news -- her nephew was not there. She was told to go look for him in the city morgue.
A Spanish-language version of this report is being published in El Tiempo Latino.