Years ago, Carlos Argueta broke away from Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador’s most violent gangs, and now leads a normal life working in a clothing factory where he was given a second chance.
Since 2010, the 33-year-old has been employed at the League plant, located in an industrial park about 32km west of San Salvador, that makes shirts for US universities and has a 190-strong workforce.
With muscular arms covered with multicolored tattoos that attest to his past gang membership, he deftly maneuvered a forklift between shelves stacked high with rolls of cloth.
Argueta takes pride in having left behind his past of violence and hatred.
“I am not ashamed to admit that I made serious mistakes, that I pushed my life to the limit. Everything was violence and hatred, but it’s over now,” he said. “Today, I work, I have a son, a wife and I am reborn. God pulled me out of the grave.”
Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, was initially formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles by young immigrants from poverty-stricken El Salvador, still reeling from years of civil war, where gang violence and drug-trafficking flourished.
The gang later spread across the US, making headlines by carrying out murders, assaults, rapes, robberies and running prostitution rings. Many of its members were deported back to their homeland.
Salvadoran authorities believe domestic street gangs count more than 30,000 members, and they blame the gangs for 90 percent of the country’s homicides, with most of the dead being gang members.
Indeed, El Salvador, home to 6 million people, has a level of violence only second in the region to Honduras — the world’s deadliest country — with a homicide rate of 65 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Central America is a key transportation hub for illegal drugs, especially cocaine from South America, heading through Mexico to be smuggled into the US. Mexican cartels like the violent Zetas have entered in the region and formed alliances with the local gangs.