Scopic regimes of a new war: photographs of gang members in the red note of the Guatemalan postwar period.

Receipt: May 18, 2023

Acceptance: May 18, 2023


Since the mid-1990s, Guatemalan newspapers have published photographs of tattooed men identified as mareros. The mobilization of these photographs plays a key role in the socialization of ideas about who these individuals are and what they do, leading to the formation of a public view of crime as a post-war phenomenon. The formation of the aforementioned public gaze, in turn, became a nodal component of a new counterinsurgency in the form of the fight against crime, of which the nota roja operated as one of its rhetorical devices. The discussion I offer focuses on the performance of the two representative newspapers of the genre: Al Día and Nuestro Diarioand is limited to the decade 1996-2005.

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visualities of a new war: photographs of mareros in sensational journalism in post-civil war guatemala

Since the mid-1990s, Guatemalan newspapers have run pictures of tattooed men identified as mareros (gang members). The deployment of these photographs served to spread ideas about who these subjects are and what they do, forging a public vision of crime as a phenomenon linked to the post-war period. Shaping this public perspective, in turn, became a new form of counterinsurgency against crime, and sensationalism has proved a critical rhetorical device. The discussion centers on two sensationalist papers, Al Día and Nuestro Diarioand covers the period from 1996-2005.

Keywords: mareros, gang members, visuality, sensational journalism, post-civil war, new counterinsurgency, Guatemala.


Photographs of gang members in Guatemalan newspapers appeared within a specific news twist: news about gangs, news that report violent events and criminal behavior carried out by gang members. The two newspapers that have most consistently publicized the gangs are Al Día and Our Journal. The first appeared in 1996 and the other in 1998. Al Día went out of circulation in 2013; Nuestro Diario remains in force. Both specialize in red news and sports, topics that have positioned them as the favorite of lower class readers and those with little schooling.

The marero photography style is not unique to Guatemala, so it would be erroneous to attribute its creation to newspapers. Given that mareros have from the beginning been a transnational criminal phenomenon, the photographic style must be situated in equally transnationalized fields of visuality, fed by rhetorics about gang members in the Californian prison system, cinematic fiction, immigration surveillance systems, and so on. While reconstructing these transnationalized fields of public visuality is an analytically stimulating task, my aim here is to highlight their local configurations by studying the emergence and consolidation of mareros in the Guatemalan nota roja during the decade following the signing of the 1996 Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace.

The development of what I have called "gang news" in red note newspapers can be interpreted, in the first place, as an effect of the ordinary evolution of crime publicity. That is, it resulted from the search for commercial incentives; newspapers, according to Picatto (2001 and 2017), also exist to generate revenue, in addition to transmitting news. Similarly, it could be argued that the arrival of gang members in the news resulted from the dependence of newspapers on the police source. From this point of view, it could be said that if newspapers publish news about gangs, it is because the protagonists of the events that the police record are gang members.

However, if we inquire into the political effects produced by news publicity, we will have a more complex analytical response. In this article I approach the news coverage of mareros with the purpose of explaining how the mobilization of photographs of tattooed men in newspapers and their use to reference criminal affiliation had a decisive influence on the processes of preventive selection of population groups, which were encapsulated in a social type cognizable through a bodily semantics based on the bearing of tattoos.

In Guatemala, the police were the first to look at tattooed bodies and use them to identify criminal behavior. They began to do so in 1997 and 1998 in the context of the tightening of policies to control low-level urban crime. So, in the beginning, the photographs appeared to fulfill police control and surveillance purposes (Sekula, 1986). Thereafter, the police interpreted their encounters with mareros by turning to information flows that updated the status of gangs in California and elsewhere in Central America, where, it was claimed, they generated high levels of violence. From that point on, police control began to rely on the search of bodies, as if they contained the keys to deciphering the social malignity that it was hoped to locate and uncover. Thus arose the anti-mara police archive itself, whose singularity with respect to past versions lies in its greater dependence on bodily grammar. With these elements a new epistemology of crime and violence was founded.

The public irruption of the mareros took place in a context of heightened security anxieties, exacerbated to a large extent by the reconversion of the apparatus of state violence after the end of the anti-guerrilla war. My position in this regard is that, in that context, criminality supplanted previous images of disorder. Criminals, including gang members, were placed in the position of new enemies of society against whom the state had to wage war. In this way, it is feasible to argue that the police archive of mareros, from which the nota roja draws, was developed in dialogue with the technologies of the new counterinsurgency, which Müller (2015) called "criminal counterinsurgency" because it was centered on the fight against crime.

In comparative perspective, mareros are the only criminal type that can be recognized by employing a body grammar codified in photographs. The gaze conveyed by photographs regulates, organizes and highlights qualities that, when indexed with the social being of the individuals portrayed, produce images. The visual power of these photographs lies in the fact that they embody the new social enemy.

To conceptualize the formation of the mareros' public gaze, I use the term "scopic regime" proposed by Martin Jay (1993 and 2011). For Jay, scopic regimes make possible the existence of certain visual practices in specific historical circumstances. The scopic regime of the mareros gives veracity to their existence, allows the scrutiny of certain bodies and makes it possible to establish indexical relationships with notions of crime, violence and social disorder.

Scopic regime is a tool for critical analysis of visual culture with broad applications in terms of scale, beyond its original conceptualization (Metz, 1982). These uses, Jay (2011) notes, allow us to think of macro and micro regimes. At one extreme are efforts to characterize epochal configurations, for example, the scopic regimes of modernity; while at the other we find narrower visual practices, circumscribed to limited times and spaces. The public gaze of the mareros in post-war Guatemala falls into this category.

Rather than discussing questions of scale, I am interested in reflecting on the mixture between photographic technologies, the shaping of ways of seeing and social domination, within historically configured fields of force. In this sense, the thesis of a scopic regime of mareros recaptures Feldman's (1991) assertion that states and their allies often act to offer their publics images that provide visual access to the stories behind the ideas that support the projects of domination to which they have committed themselves.

In the same line of ideas, my approach to the contemporary visuality of crime finds inspiration in the analysis of María Torres (2014) and her study of the aesthetics and narratives elaborated by the photojournalists who covered the Guatemalan political violence of the past. According to Torres, the Guatemalan nota roja contributed significantly to the construction of the scopic regimes of terror propitiated by the military dictatorships, but it was also an ordinary commercial enterprise and a visual repository of enormous value for the processes of memory. The contemporary nota roja is, as in the past, at once a rhetorical apparatus of counterinsurgency, a publishing business and a deponent of the new violence.

The new war

In Guatemala, the increases in crime statistics and violent deaths and their concomitant sense of public insecurity became privileged instances to verify the waning progress of the transitions from war to peace and from authoritarianism to formal democracy (Bateson, 2013; López et al2009; Camus et al., 2015; Mendoza, 2007).

Why did violence and crime increase in times of peace? There is not one, but several possible answers, each with their respective nuances, having in common the premise that the observed reality represents a sociological irregularity: the transition should have brought peace, not more violence and crime, as it did. It is not in my interest to establish the state of the art of post-war violence and crime, nor to contradict the pacification enthusiasts. I simply find that the political relevance that crime and violence attained during the postwar period is not limited to the numerical growth of robberies, kidnappings, homicides and other events.

To better understand the positioning of crime and violence as issues of high public sensitivity in the context of the replacement of authoritarian modes of command by formally democratic ones, it is appropriate to pay attention to the semiotic movements of substitution and displacement of the nationally threatening within the dominant imagery of order and disorder. At the same time that in the facts recorded in statistics, crime is a contentious reality that threatens the continuity of historically configured methods of violent domination.

This analytical wager, which I briefly outline, rests on the following formulation: Guatemalan elites and state agents acting in accordance with their interests harbor the suspicion that the civil mechanisms available to them to perpetuate social domination are fragile. Historically, economic elites have given up on expanding the basis of hegemony through the distribution of wealth and the building of a national culture capable of addressing internal differences in a positive way. In times of crisis and when they sense that social domination is weakening, they frequently resort to the agitation of socially dangerous figures, whom the State must control or extirpate through violent methods. It is striking that, in the Guatemalan experience, threats to social order come from within the body of the nation, not from outside. Hence, most of the time, the continuity of the State's authority has depended on the existence of something or someone to fight in the name of the defense of the national society. In fact, to a large extent, the State exists to perform such a task.

Renewing beliefs that the nation is permanently threatened by figures from within is part of the games of affirmation of social domination to which I am alluding. This entails the development of capacities to control the physical resources of violence deposited in the State, arrogating to itself the right to authorize their defensive use in the name of something broader than self-defense. Thus, in this country, the war against the enemies of society has always been violence against other Guatemalans, never or only rarely violence against foreigners.

While it is correct to link the representations of the nation conceived as a body perennially threatened from within with the culture of the dominant classes, it is also true that the semiotics of internal enemies and the resolute value of violence is not exclusive to the elites. In different times and spaces, the popular classes have been enthusiastic about projects of violent domination that turn against themselves or the environments of intimacy.

In the postwar period, criminals replaced leftist guerrillas. While the subversives threatened the class privileges of the elite and promised a better future for the impoverished masses, the criminals lack projects of social transformation, they are simply predators of lives and patrimony. It is a question of displacements with modifications, of ruptures with continuities, not of linear relays.

In the present, the fact that we are all potential victims of crime makes fear spread throughout the social body of the nation with high degrees of acuity. For this reason, the mobilization of fear and senses of insecurity reached narrative densities not seen in the past, thus achieving that people and groups separated by class fractures, ethnicity and urban-rural differences, find that the fight against security threats is a common project to which all must contribute.

This is the general framework for the positioning of the mareros as a source of disorder and new enemies of the State. In relation to the past, the new war would be novel because it would take place within the framework of a formally democratic governmentality, it would be mainly in charge of the police, it would be fought in the urban peripheries and against an enemy devoid of ideologies of radical social change.

Manufacture of gangs in the urban red note

To understand the formation of the public view of gang members, it is necessary to pay attention to the developments of the nota roja in general, as well as the subgenre of gang news in particular. The knowledge problem we face is not the existence of mareros in the sociological sense, but the production and mobilization of ideas and images about who they are and what they do. We are dealing with an object of knowledge to which are attributed qualisigns of proximity to crime, whose apprehension depends on the activation of a visual referentiality based on bodily markers.

In keeping with the genre convention, gang news reports narrate events, generally crimes, and offer photographs of the protagonists. From a semiotic point of view, news stories constitute general propositions composed of linguistic and visual elements (Peirce, 1986). In them, photographs appear to fulfill functions of iconicity or indexicality in relation to the general message. The conceptualization of news as a general proposition does not nullify the power of journalistic photographs to signify autonomously. In our case study, recognizing the relative autonomy of the photograph in relation to the written text is relevant, due to the preponderance that visuality has acquired in the processes of social cognizability of the criminal type represented in them.

The existing broad consensus regarding the role that newspapers have played in the formation of social imagination and the socialization of ideas and political discourses is extensible to their performance in the production and mobilization of notions regarding crime and criminals (Jusionyte, 2015; Picatto, 2001, 2017; Siegel, 1998). In the diaries, writes James Siegel, we will not find criminals in the sociological sense, but the manufacture of images and ideas about their genesis and existence (1998: 30). Crime narratives emerge from complex and decentralized processes, extensible across various spaces, from the appearance of police at crime scenes to newsrooms.

Crime in the news is a contentious object that is modulated in encounters and negotiations between individuals and institutions that work together to translate facts into authorized and semiotically oriented explanations, through which a particular event is turned into news. According to Jusionyte (2015), the production of news entails a particular type of work consisting in the manipulation of signs and meanings that the author apprehends with the term. crimecraft (discursive manufacturing of crime). The concept is useful to study the work of narrative composition of the news carried out by journalists based on the police source. Here I use it for two purposes: to highlight the creative force of journalistic enunciation and to emphasize the protagonism of the press in the production of social cognizability of social types and criminals in particular.

In the Guatemalan news, mareros began to appear sporadically in the late 1980s (avancso1998; Reséndiz, 2018). In the years that followed, journalistic reports of gang activities increased, but only established a space in their own right after 1994. Since then, maras and mareros constitute easily delimitable linguistic categories of referentiality of criminal groups and actors. Since at that time the mareros' radius of operations was limited to the poor neighborhoods of the periphery and the populous center of the capital, their appearance in the news was between the lines of the criminality of the poor. That is, they were depicted as poor victimizing other poor (Misse, 2018). However, from the beginning they were charged with signs of social malignancy and social disorder.

Let us keep in mind that, by the early 1990s, the sense of insecurity and public attraction to crime had faded, both because of the quantitative growth of violent acts and the heightened public anxieties stemming from the suspicion that with the withdrawal of military power, authority vacuums were emerging that were being colonized by criminals. Kidnappings, crimes that victimized the middle and upper classes, were the main focus of public attention. From various sides, speeches were directed at the State demanding violent protection, which were answered with promises of more police action in the streets and increased criminal punishments. It was in that period that the highest number of death sentences were issued. In this context, the dialogues between the governed and the rulers, largely mediated by the press, modulated the reality of crime, producing common meanings and consensus. This gave rise to the certainty that gang members also constituted a social threat to be taken into account.

Image 1. El Gráfico, October 2, 1993. Photograph by the author.

While by 1996 the categories maras and mareros had become established in public discourse, the same was not true of visual representations. Mareros were recognizable when individuals identified themselves as such, when someone said "this is a marero" and when they appeared agglomerated in gangs. The use of photographs as a means of cognizability of the criminal type emerged later. The absence of the public gaze focused on the bodies in that historical moment can be illustrated by the following case: in October 1993, the newspaper The Graphicpresented a news item about a gang that, made up of "young men dressed in black and armed with baseball bats," had made a commercial avenue in the capital its center of criminal operations (Hermosilla, 1993:10). The news item contains a photograph of the aforementioned avenue, but not of the gang members about whom it reports. In the position that was later occupied by the photographs of tattooed bodies appears a graphic that visualizes the streets surrounding the avenue in question, and inserted in it is an avatar representing the gang members. The avatar fulfills the purpose of showing the "loose" style of dress of the gang members and the ostentation of bats described in the news.

The news included in the avatar is representative of the narrative universe of the maras at that time. If the photographs are absent, it is because the bodies of the gang members had not yet been highlighted as texts to be interpreted. The absence of bodily indices that would establish gang membership meant that, on many occasions, the gang members were presented as ordinary criminals. This situation is well reflected in the police reports from which the news was written. In these reports, those captured are often identified according to the type of crime committed. Those who stole purses were pickpockets; those who robbed were muggers.

Before anti-gang operations became commonplace, police attention on the criminality of the poor focused on thieves who mugged and robbed shoppers and passersby in the city center. The police used to prepare special security plans for dates when popular trade increased, such as Christmas and other important holidays. The priority objective of the security plans was to catch criminals in flagrante delicto. Before, during and after their implementation, the red press offered extensive coverage of police actions. Of what happened, the numbers of arrests and the scenes of notorious spectacularity (chases, fights, etc.) were usually on the front pages. Most of the arrests made by the police in the framework of the operations were presented according to the flagrancy of the case: thief, pickpocket, mugger, burglar, etc. This situation began to change after 1996.

The 1997 Christmas security plan is a relevant inflection point for the story we are reviewing. The number of arrests reported by the police on that occasion was particularly high. In most of the police reports taken up by the news, the detainees are identified as assailants or thieves. Only on a few occasions are there allusions to the fact that some of them belonged to the maras. Even so, the journalists extended the interpretation of the reports by asserting that the thieves detained by the police were also gang members. This was the first security episode in which the press made an effort to situate the gang members in the role of highly dangerous criminal actors, even going beyond the police themselves.

The impression resulting from reading the news is that, for journalists, the gang affiliation of some of the detainees was more newsworthy than simply identifying them as thieves. This attitude indicates that, as we will see later on, the Guatemalan red news remained expectant of the early implantation of the gangs of Californian origin in Central America.

War on gangs

The 1997 Christmas security plan, which was to end after the celebration of the new year in 1998, was extended during the following months until it was almost converted into a permanent state of exception, with an inclination towards the surveillance of gang members. Beginning in the second quarter of the year, the anti-crime operations in the center and outskirts of the capital became known by the police themselves as a "war on the maras.

The available newspaper evidence shows that it was also at that time that the police began to systematically commit extrajudicial executions against suspected gang members. Between February and March of that year alone, more than a dozen young people identified as members of the maras were executed in circumstances that attributed the responsibility for their deaths to the police (Avendaño and Salazar, 1998: 8). The crystallization of the mareros as a new criminal type recognizable through the eyes took place in the police operations at the end of 1997 and the first months of 1998. With this statement I am not denying the existence of previous cognizable initiatives. Rather, I am underlining the operability of a qualitative leap in the state conceptualization of a category of social dangerousness and its translation to the domain of police violence and, even more relevant: the construction of a visuality of its own.

With the inauguration of the war against the gangs, the police discovered the tattooed bodies of the gang members and pointed out that these tattoos were useful to visually reference the new type of criminal. He did this based on his encounters with members of the Mara Salvatrucha. Let's see how it happened.

By 1998, the universe of maras was made up of a myriad of gangs with their own names which, for the purposes of exposition, can be grouped into two modalities according to their origin: native and transnational. The former resembled neighborhood-based groups identified with a charismatic leader; they were not tattooed and their criminal profiles were rudimentary.

The adjective "transnational" is useful to denote the Mara Salvatrucha (ms) and Barrio 18 (B18). According to the founding fictions of these organizations, both emerged in the United States to crystallize the racial logics of California gangsterism that segregated Central Americans from Chicanos, blacks and others. Specialized literature has explained the entrenchment of the ms and the B18 in Central America as a result of the massive deportations carried out by the U.S. government in the early 1990s. Among the deportees were gang members, who upon their arrival were given the task of recreating the Californian organizations.

When the Guatemalan police began their war against the maras between 1997 and 1998, gang activity in the country was diversified. While the native maras vacillated between being harmless youth gangs and groups of assailants and petty thieves, the transnational maras showed themselves to be capable of violence and the development of more complex criminal profiles. It became common that, in presenting the msIn the case of the Salvadoran gang, it was established that it came from the United States, that it had been created by Salvadorans, that it was more violent than the others, and that its members had tattoos. The recurrence of mentions such as these conveys the certainty that, in a certain way, the Guatemalan police encounters with the Salvatruchas were preceded by the anticipation of the flow of information about the situation of the Californian gangs and the Salvadoran reality. In other words, in the Guatemalan experience, the concept of what or who was a Salvatrucha anticipated the physical presence of individuals identified with that category.

The inclusion of the salvatruchas in the national taxonomy of the maras meant that every time the police captured suspected gang members, they checked them for tattoos. Those who had tattoos were presented as "salvatruchas" (let's keep in mind that the members of the native gangs did not have tattoos). The presence of tattoos led to the detainees' torsoes being stripped and thus exposed to photojournalists, who were in charge of taking them to the news. For this reason, for several years, the photographs showed some individuals partially naked and others clothed. In retrospect, and using the underlying police look in them, it is possible to anticipate the affiliation of the individuals portrayed: those who kept their clothes on belonged to native gangs; those who appear with their naked torso can almost certainly be said to be gang members. It was in this way that newspapers began to publish photographs of tattooed men identifying them as members of the Mara Salvatrucha.

The appearance of photographs of tattooed bodies in newspapers and their use to index membership of the ms took place in the context of the implementation of anti-crime operations that resulted in high numbers of gang members being captured between 1997 and 1998, and is closely linked to Al Día and Nuestro Diario. The treatment of maras and mareros in these newspapers is quite similar; however, it is appropriate to consider them separately.

Image 2. Al Día, February 19, 1998. Photograph by the author.

Al Día began circulating in November 1996. Although from the beginning it presented news of gangs, these only reached the front pages during the coverage of the war against the gangs. In the February 19, 1998 edition, the newspaper reported a "shootout between gangs" in a popular neighborhood in the north of the capital. The photograph on the front page shows a man lying on a hospital gurney with his torso uncovered, with what appears to be the number 18 tattooed on his belly, but neither the police nor the journalists noticed the existence of the mark. Neither do we know who removed his shirt, whether it was the police officers who arrested him or the paramedics who attended the emergency (Al Día, 1998a).

One month later, on March 23, Al Día named the "war on the gangs" in a news item offering the results of anti-gang police operations. The photograph accompanying the news item offers a panoramic view of an irregular settlement with tin houses scattered over a barren hill. The subject of the camera was not the mareros, but the social environment from which they came: the precariousness of the capital's periphery (Flores, 1998: 3).

The first mention of tattoos as an index of gang membership in this newspaper appeared on March 29, 1998. The news item reported the discovery of two unidentified corpses "left" on a highway on the outskirts of the capital. According to the police officers quoted by the journalist, the corpses "were gang members because of the number of tattoos painted on their thorax, arms and back" (Salazar, 1998: 8). Thus the description of the picture printed on the skin of one of the executed gang members:

Where death surprises me, welcome. The above prayer is tattooed on the left arm and is part of several winged figures with sharp claws, horns and demonic expressions that were painted on other parts of the victim's body. The police investigator takes note and says that "this boy is one of the gang members who worship Satan. We have already captured some of them and they have the same characteristic: many tattoos and a cross on the middle finger of the left hand" (Salazar, 1998: 8; italics and internal quotation marks belong to the original).

The photograph included in the news item does not show the tattoos. It shows a police officer photographing the bodies and the crowd of onlookers surrounding the scene. The newspaper emphasizes the indexicality that the presence of tattoos allows to establish above the finding of the two corpses that, by the way, it is quite possible that they have been executed by the police themselves. The relevance of this news item lies in the statement of the investigator, who slowly lectures the journalist from the authoritative position that the war against the gangs provided him. The use of the implied plural "we have" is key in this sense, as it alludes to a "we" incorporated by the police; we who have captured gang members; we who we have learned to recognize them; we who have gained mastery to educate others to do their own.

The first time that Al Día used photographs of a tattooed body to refer to the visuality of the mareros on May 13, 1998. The front cover of that edition shows a shirtless man, photographed from behind, with his arms raised. On his back and arms he has several tattoos, with the following initials standing out msplaced over the shoulder blades. The photograph is captioned "Capturan a salvatruchas" (Al Día, 1998b: 1).

Image 3. Al Día, May 13, 1998 (cover). Photograph by the author.

The reader will notice that this is a trick image. The object was isolated and placed on a white background, possibly with the purpose of limiting distracting factors. The composition speaks for itself, or that seems to be the underlying aspiration. The montage depicting the Salvatrucha is based on the thesis that gang members are visually reducible to tattooed bodies.

The news of the capture of the gangsters shares the front page with three secondary news items. Of these, two include conventional photographs. The other, which reports the arrival of the Virgin of Fatima to the country, also presents a trick image. In their own way, both images perform the same job: they are icons. One of the Virgin, the other of the mareros. Therein lies their representational relevance. Thus, we have that the first tattooed bodies exposed by the police with the purpose of signifying affiliation with gangs belonged to gang members. Consequently, the public visuality of the marero social type adapted to the imagery conditioned from the bodies of the gang members.

The number of publications of Al Día dedicated to the war against gangs continued to grow during 1998. The thematic recurrence allows us to observe how concepts and ideas were transferred from the police field to the journalistic narrative. The police presented individuals, dead or alive, whom they incriminated of being gang members and exposed them for journalists to photograph, offered characterizations and explained the control they exercised over them, in addition to providing interpretative keys for readers to locate them in the figurative landscape of urban crime. The message he was trying to convey seems to be clear: to recognize the mareros it was not necessary to hear them say "I am a marero", it was enough to see photographs, whose footnotes established that the object depicted was a marero.

The narrative of mareros de Nuestro Diario is little different from that of Al DíaThe reason for this is a rhetoric of greater incrimination. Nuestro Diario began circulating in January 1998. As Al Día, specialized in red note and soccer news. The appearance of Nuestro Diario coincided with the first episode of the anti-gang war. Possibly for this reason, the mareros became central to the news from the first editions. In this newspaper, the relations between tattooed bodies and gang members were interwoven from the encounters between the police and the gang members.

Nuestro Diario first alluded to the interpretive value of the mareros' tattoos on May 13, 1998 when it reported that the police had captured two brothers, whom it charged with murder. The news included a photograph of the detainees. One is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, revealing tattoos on his right forearm. But it is the caption of the photo that weaves the correspondence between image and narrative. It reads: "The traditional tattoo ms on their bodies identifies them as members of the "'Salvatrucha' mara" (Revolorio, 1998: 4).

Image 4. Nuestro Diario, March 15, 1998: 4.

In Nuestro DiarioThe first tattooed body undressed to be photographed with the express purpose of exposing it appeared on August 23, 1998. On that occasion the newspaper reported on a police raid on brothels in the capital. The news stated that six gang members accused of robbing and quarreling in the center of the city had been captured. Although the title summarizes the police report of the raid, the larger photograph included in the news item portrays a shirtless man with his upper body covered with tattoos, subjected to the same manipulation technique as the photograph on the cover of Al Día of May 13. The footnote states that: "the 'Salvatruchas' have a body full of diabolical tattoos" (Cortez, 1998: 5).

Image 5. Nuestro Diario, August 31, 1998: 5.

The discordance between the title of the news item, the photograph and the accompanying footnote is more than haphazard. The newspaper omitted to establish the personal identity of the individual photographed, as well as the authorship, provenance and dating of the photograph. Who was this person? Was he one of those captured during the raid on the brothels? We do not know. Personal identity seems to be of little relevance to the visual pedagogical enterprise at stake. The composition aspires to produce the same pragmatic effects as the tricked image of To DayThe following is a warning to readers that the gangsters are gang members and can be recognized by the tattoos they carry.

It is striking to note that the first time that both newspapers exposed a tattooed body with the purpose of referencing the visuality of the gang members, they resorted to trick photographs that isolate the object from the surroundings of the shot. Both images remove the object from the context of the shot in a clear effort to fix the gaze on the tattooed body, suppressing distractors.

The evidence shows that when the gangs appeared on the streets, the police were prepared to recognize them. These encounters were synthesized in the slogan "war on the maras," coined in 1998, in a scenario marked by a heightened sense of insecurity that heightened the anticipation of socially dangerous figures. It is also clear that the knowledge that gang members were tattooed had been installed in advance, favored by the flow of information on the creolization of Californian gangs.

Based on the above, let us agree that the incorporation of tattoos into the criminal intelligence toolbox crystallized during the establishment of the war on gangs, between 1997 and 1998, and that their arrival in the pages of red newspapers was simultaneous. As Jusionyte (2015) points out, by transmitting news about the gangs, newspapers did more than just report events involving gang members and police: by following the pattern of police reports and synchronizing their lenses with the police optics, red newspapers modeled a narrative of urban criminality and delimited the edges of the public gaze trained to see gang members.

Iconicity and photographic remapping

We already know that one of the lessons that the war against the gangs taught Guatemalan police intelligence was that being a gang member and having a tattoo presupposed belonging to the gangs. ms. Given that the membership of this gang was limited, the availability of photographs of tattooed bodies to expose in the news was limited. The dilemma was solved by reusing photographs that, according to the journalistic optics, encapsulated the visual signs of the new criminal type. It was these photographs that gave shape to the visual iconicity of the mareros.

This was the case with the gang member depicted in the trick photograph presented by Nuestro Diario in the news about the raid on brothels in the capital, whose image was incorporated in news of generic topics. In its first appearance, the photograph became a symbol of individual existence because it represented a really existing marero: the owner of the body portrayed. Removed from its original context, it no longer represented this individual. In its subsequent appearances, the photograph became the iconic sign of a general sociological category: the mareros.

According to the semiotic theory, icons are signs taken from What the object they represent by virtue of shared qualitative similarities; i.e., the portrait in the newspapers is What the gangsters who lurked in the streets. But the iconic photographs evolved to become rematic representations. Remas are signs of greater complexity. They are characterized by being connected by the objects they represent through associations of general ideas. Thus, with each new appearance, photographs actualize in the mind of the observer a link of signification between the image and its corresponding sociological category (Peirce, 1986: 35). The remapping of photographic signs in newspapers contributed to galvanize the public visuality of the mareros.

The bodily uniqueness of the salvatruchas soon dissipated. By 2002, the tattoos had acquired sufficient epistemic value to establish existential connections with all gang members. Then there were no more distinctions between salvatruchas and other mareros. For the police, tattoos became common currency to identify them without the affiliation mattering much. From that point on, the red news was filled with news of gangs that included photographs of tattooed bodies. The materiality of the gangs' scopic regime rests on this accumulation of images that repeat patterns of visuality.

Nor did the projects to decipher malignity stop there. As it gained ground, the police gaze became aware that tattoos constituted a system of signs interconnected with other systems of signs perfectly legible for those who shared it. Following their traces, the red note transmitted the findings of police semiotic expertise: gangs have their own language that communicates a particular universe. For example, in a 2004 news item reporting that the Central American police were seeking to unify their strategies to combat the gangs, Nuestro Diario made the following statement: "As in all marginal cultures, the maras have developed their own language that goes beyond words. They have a manual language and tattoos, which reflect how far one has climbed within the gang" (Redacción, 2004: 3).

By 2004 "the maras" was a general category with the semiotic power to encompass the differentiations that in the past had to be pointed out. The possession of a common language pulverized the multiplicity of identities that existed a decade earlier. It is not that differences were rendered useless; rather, interpretative capacities gained denotative amplitude, connecting and interweaving links, devising similarities and inserting particular stories into a common history.

By the time the above report was published, mareros had been placed at the center of US-sponsored regional security cooperation programs (Müller, 2015; Hochmüller and Müller, 2016 and 2017). They were no longer simple petty criminal figures located in urban peripheries, but transnational criminal networks that could be homologated and trained to transfer their dangerousness to the mythical point of their origin.

In a later report, the "proper language" of the maras was extended to gestures and graffiti:

The maras, or youth gangs, made up of some 15,000 Guatemalans, have a level of organization, like in the mafias, where "whoever goes in doesn't come out, only dead. [Their language] includes hand signs, graffiti on walls and tattoos on their bodies. All with a special meaning. "It is a unique code of expression, a very complex alphabet with which we communicate, greet or even insult each other," explains a marero leader who declined to give his name or nickname [...] Each hand sign, graffiti or tattoo has a message. "The graffiti and tattoos tell our history, thoughts and feelings, they describe what we do," adds another gang member. In addition, there are secret messages that they use only among themselves and their disclosure can lead to death (Salazar and del Cid, 2005: 2; punctuation corresponds to the original).

The impression resulting from the quote is that, indeed, as the first marero who intervened in the interview argued, the maras resemble secret societies and that their membership possessed linguistic codes accessible only to the initiated; tattoos were one of these codes. This being so, according to the newspaper, the police project had to expand beyond the physical control of individuals into the grammar of space until it possessed their language.


The end of the anti-guerrilla war in the mid-1990s imposed the challenge of finding new reasons for the continuation of state violence. In the place of the former revolutionaries, criminals of varied phenomenology sprouted up. Among them were the mareros, conglomerates of urban youths, precarious, floating populations, possessing a sociology full of threats from the outside, disruptive moralities, etc. These characteristics placed them at the edge of social disorder. The acts of naming, of affirming these The fact that they are mareros paved the way for the consolidation of the new criminal type, constituting the starting point for the subsequent processes of subjection and anticipatory labeling.

The war against the maras, which began between 1997 and 1998, meant that being a marero meant that being a more than just stealing or quarreling. That more proved elusive to words. To apprehend it, it was necessary to resort to more resources than written discourse and to scrutinize the bodies as if they carried the interpretative coordinates of the social malignity in the making. The representational realism that was sought to be transmitted was provided by photography, whose relationship with the police archive is of enormous historical depth.

The appearance of photographs of tattooed men with indications of being read as icons of social danger was key to the consolidation of a new way of looking. In order for this look to have public effects, it had to be put to the consideration of the national audience of crime, being the red note its preferred communicational infrastructure. To affirm that the cognizability of mareros has been entrusted to the gaze is another way of designating the existence of a specific scopic regime for this type of criminal.

We observe here that the scopic regime of the mareros exposes the bodies of the mareros, dead or alive, using tattoos as signs of visual referentiality of the criminal sociology of the individuals portrayed. By taking up the police optic of the mareros, newspapers such as Al Día and Nuestro Diario were coupled to the new state counterinsurgency. They transferred the narratives authorized in the police reports to public opinion and invested enormous doses of graphic aesthetics to reproduce photographs that repeated patterns of visual representation, whose footnotes established that the person or persons portrayed were mareros.

To the extent that the post-war red note enthusiastically embraced the war against the maras and contributed to the shaping of its narrative, it operated as a rhetorical apparatus of the new counterinsurgency. Historically prone to depend on the authoritative voice of the police source, newspapers assumed this role as a regular part of the search for novelties that would attract the attention of readers, increasing the flow of sales. Certainly the urban red note of the postwar period calibrated the rhetoric of the new counterinsurgency, but it would be wrong to reduce it to mere sounding boards for the police voice. As in other contexts and historical moments, the print media played more than one role at a time. If the maras' news publicity prospered, it was because there were readers who consumed the news they presented. In this sense, by presenting crime news Al Día and Nuestro Diario were satisfying the demands of readers eager to look at criminals. And, much as with the political violence of the past, the nota roja provides us with the best detailed repository of contemporary crime and violence now available to us.

To conclude, it is appropriate to point out that, at present, the rhetoric of social dangerousness of gang members has gradually given way to a discourse of orthodox criminality focused on publicizing extortive criminality. Even so, the visuality, which for the sake of clarification I will now call classic, remains valid and has clearly gained autonomy with respect to its original source. Photographs of tattooed bodies posing as gangsters continue to appear in the newspapers, but the didactic captions that state "this is a marero" became obsolete. At present, visual signs appear to signify general concepts without the requirement of demonstrating the actual existence of their objects, since the visual economy of gangs has become globalized.


The article provides partial results of a project financed by the digi-usac (Project B-6 2020). The research was coordinated by Felipe Girón with the participation of Fátima Díaz and Fernando Orozco. My thanks to them.


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Luis Bedoya holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from El Colegio de Michoacán, Mexico (2017). He is interested in the study of violence, crime narratives and state formation processes from local and regional scales.


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