Erasing Evidence of Life in a Gang

Above, Morales works on a Jesus face on the arm of Jose Cabezas, 28, who did not belong to a gang but wanted to get rid of a tattoo that might be mistaken for a gang's. Below, she burns away a gang symbol on the back of Guillermo Orellana, 16, no relation to Abelina Orellana.
Above, Morales works on a Jesus face on the arm of Jose Cabezas, 28, who did not belong to a gang but wanted to get rid of a tattoo that might be mistaken for a gang's. Below, she burns away a gang symbol on the back of Guillermo Orellana, 16, no relation to Abelina Orellana. (Photos By N.c. Aizenman -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 7, 2006

SAN SALVADOR -- The first patient of the day was a plump 16-year-old wearing sparkly barrettes, Mary Janes-style shoes and a shy smile.

But there was nothing girlish about the tattoo that Abelina Orellana had come to get removed: a giant "18" scrawled across her back in crude, gothic numerals. The emblem signified membership in the vicious 18th Street, or Eighteen, gang that, along with rival Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has terrorized communities across Central America for nearly a decade.

As long as she was marked with the symbol, Orellana's hopes of building a new life apart from the gang were slim. Employers would be fearful of hiring her. Members of MS-13 could mistake her for an active member and attack her. And police might jail her under a 2003 law that makes gang membership a crime -- with tattoos the only evidence required. Indeed, so strong is the stigma of a gang tattoo in El Salvador that some former members who can't afford professional removal have resorted to burning their skin off with battery acid or a hot iron.

This health clinic in the basement of the concrete-block San Judas Tadeu Catholic Church in northeast San Salvador offers one of the few alternatives. Olga Morales, coordinator of the clinic's Adios Tatuajes, or "Goodbye Tattoos," project, estimates that since the program began in 2002, she has helped more than 1,000 patients. At first, all were former MS-13 or Eighteen members -- including Salvadorans deported from Washington and other U.S. cities where the gangs are also active. These days, more than half of Morales's patients are people seeking to get rid of ordinary tattoos they fear could be mistaken for gang symbols.

Now Morales cast her practiced eye on Orellana's back. The challenge, she explained, would be to avoid leaving behind a scar in the same shape as the tattoo she was about to erase.

"Okay, don't worry. I have the solution," announced Morales, an anesthesiologist by training. "I'll burn some extra skin next to the top and bottom of the '1' so the scar will just look like a rectangle."

Orellana nodded her agreement. Then she climbed onto a metal table topped by a thin, plastic mattress and lay on her stomach.

Morales injected anesthetic into Orellana's back as the young woman breathed in sharply and stared through the window at the jumble of concrete and tin huts hugging the hillside below. Other than a rooster crowing loudly in the distance, the neighborhood seemed quiet and peaceful.

In fact, this working-class enclave, known as Mejicanos, is considered such a stronghold of MS-13 that cabdrivers will not bring passengers here after dark. Last year, neighborhood gang leaders accused the Goodbye Tattoos project of trying to lure away their members and threatened to shut the clinic down. At least five of Morales's patients have been shot dead -- she presumes in retaliation for trying to leave their gangs. Three weeks ago, local MS-13 leaders sent word that they wanted the clinic to start paying $400 a month in "renta," the gang's term for the protection money it charges everyone in the neighborhood, from bus drivers to pupusa vendors.

Each time, the parish priest managed to defuse the crisis by personally meeting with the gang leaders.

"But the truth is we're very vulnerable," Morales said with a nervous smile. "We have no security. We are at their mercy."

Lately, few former MS-13 members dare come for tattoo removal for fear of being recognized by someone on the street. "I would say we get one MS member for every 10 from the 18th Street gang," Morales said.


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