SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA: The hands knitting so deftly are covered in tattoos, and nearby another man delicately puts the final touches to a painting of Elsa, the character from Disney’s animation “Frozen.”
That’s the scene in a prison in El Salvador where former members of the country’s ultra-violent gangs are being kept after renouncing their previous life and readying to re-enter society.
It’s a path to rehabilitation for people US President Donald Trump has called “animals” as he has sought to conflate the gangs in Central America with broader immigration from the region.
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are some of the most dangerous countries in the world, and are collectively known as Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” Together, they form the biggest zone for undocumented migration to the United States as citizens flee insecurity, corruption and poverty.
The two main gangs in the Northern Triangle are MS-13 and Barrio 18, criminal outfits started on the streets of Los Angeles, California in the 1980s and brought back to the Northern Triangle as Central Americans were deported back to their homelands.
In El Salvador, these gangs – locally called “maras” – drive a national homicide rate that is the highest in the world outside of a war zone. There are an estimated 70,000 gang members in the country.
Leaving the gangs is dangerous. But those sitting in the San Francisco Gotera penitentiary east of the capital San Salvador want to take the risk. The program they are in is run by an evangelical church.
“We regret so much belonging to the gang and spending all that time stacking up so many problems,” one of the convicts, Moises Linares, 30, told AFP.
He has a big “18” tattooed onto his forehead, signalling his past fealty. He has already served 12 years behind bars for extortion.
A couple of years ago, Linares was counted among the most violent prisoners being held. Now, he is training others in bread-making skills he learned from his grandmother when he was 13.
The prison they are in holds 1,585 inmates, nearly five times the capacity it was designed for. Most are there for serious crimes such as murder, extortion and belonging to criminal organisations.
In August 2016, the authorities running the penitentiary began sifting out inmates who wanted to leave their gang and take part in the “I Change” rehabilitation program, explained El Salvador’s prison services director, Marco Tulio Lima.
The rules of the program are tough, for those locked away for years: no free time, no visits, and no alcohol.
“There is a change of behaviour that boosts their rehabilitation,” he said. “There is a desire to completely leave behind their gang, even to the point they ask to have their tattoos removed.”
The tattoos, often covering the whole body, are an obvious sign of gang membership, and a barrier to finding jobs or otherwise fitting into society after release. Getting rid of them is almost literally like shedding the skin of their previous life.
“We would love to get rid of the tattoos. We don’t want to have to hide them anymore,” said Marvin Palacios, a 31-year-old former MS-13 member taking part in sketching and painting workshops.
He has already served 13 years for murder, and hopes to be released from prison in August.
But he’s worried. The “M” and “S” inked on each arm could be his death warrant once he’s outside. The rival gangs don’t hesitate to kill their enemy when they come across them.
Father and son, ex-foes
Inside the prison of San Francisco Gotera, though, some of that rivalry has been buried.
One ex-member of MS-13, Marlon Steward Padilla, 40, who has spent 16 years locked away, found himself sharing the prison with his 24-year-old son Alexander, a Barrio-18 member convicted for murder.
“I was happy. I hugged him and kissed him and told him that the time I wasn’t able to give him on the streets, I’ll give him here,” said Marlon, who now shares his cell with his son.
According to prison authorities, of the 80 inmates who have already been released after going through the rehabilitation program, only one returned to committing crime.