The Mara Salvatrucha (aka MS-13), reputedly the world’s largest and most violent street gang, provides the daunting subject of “Children of the War,” noted still photographer Alexandre Fuchs’ docu debut. Spreading like wildfire through the U.S. and Central America, the gang boasts some 100,000 adherents. A surprisingly wide array of interviewees, from Cockney-accented professors to straight-arrow FBI agents to defiantly tattooed MS-13 members, form a complex mosaic that’s both a public menace and a symptom of global social disorder.A multiple prize-winner on the fest circuit, docu may find its theatrical fortunes in step with the newsworthiness of its subject.
Fuchs traces the gang’s genesis back to the escalation of the civil war in El Salvador as the U.S., determined to fight the Cold War on Salvadoran soil, spent millions of dollars to combat guerrilla forces. Children of that war, who came to the U.S. already inured to violence, formed the Mara Salvatrucha on the streets of L.A. to protect themselves from gangs of other ethnicities, and it’s hardly surprising that they quickly gained ascendancy: The Mara Salvatrucha presently poses a threat in 33 states and has even crossed over into Canada.
Meanwhile, arrested gang members, routinely deported back to El Salvador, established MS-13 on Central American turf, where it flourished in even more deadly fashion. Salvadoran President Francisco Flores initiated a policy of mano dura (iron fist) to crush the gangs, indiscriminately arresting all members (easily identifiable by their elaborate tattoos), many of whom were mowed down in a series of prison massacres.
Shocking taped images include rows of slaughtered prisoners; a bloody, bullet-ridden bus whose riders are carried out in body bags; and scenes of drive-by hits, apparently filmed by the occupants of the killer’s car. Next to the immediacy and brutality of this found footage, the commentary of assorted talking heads seems markedly, perhaps deliberately inadequate.
Most of the young gang members filmed by Fuchs let their intricate tattoos and signature hand gestures show their fanatical allegiance to MS-13 and defiance of everything and everybody else. The only voices that directly address both the problems that led to the formation of the gangs and the problems engendered by the gangs are those of older ex-members, chief among them Ernesto Miranda, one of MS-13’s two 12-year-old co-founders, now older and wiser. He is shot down shortly before the docu wraps.
Fuchs’ photography cred is evident less in any obviously composed shots than in the varying textures and palettes of his differently sourced materials.