We meet the Mara members grieving their murdered friends and relatives, and follow them at birthday celebrations, funerals, hospital and court. The driving force is the somewhat perverse juxtaposition of semi-war reality, thug attitude and cruelty, with almost overly endearing loyalty, friendship and solidarity.

Mara gang culture is frequently described as a product of the civil war in El Salvador in the late 1980s, when approximately 100, 000 people were killed. Large contingents fled the country, mainly to major cities in the US, including, most notably for Mara genealogy, Los Angeles, California. Seeking work and cheap housing in the Rampart area of LA, the Salvadorian refugees’ stories of assimilation (or lack thereof) resembles those of so many immigrant minorities before them, be they Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish or Italian.

https://vimeo.com/20117498

The gang called “MS 13” started here in the early nineties, in response to hostility from resident Mexican gangs. Joining forces was a necessity, although their initial goals were often as innocuous as “just hang[ing] out, maybe going to an Ozzie Osbourne concert”, as a veteran of the Mara’s founder generation once put it.

However innocent their beginning was, the Mara’s rapid development and infamous brutality owes much to the fact that many of their members were trained in guerilla warfare, thus giving them the upper hand in local turf wars.

Gang members of the Mara 18 help another with his wounds in the El Hoyon prison

The gang’s full name, Mara Salvatrucha 13, it is believed, was created by combining “La Mara”, a violent street gang in El Salvador, with “Salvatruchas”, to denote members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a group of Salvadorian peasants trained as guerilla fighters. The 13 was added as a homage to the California Prison Gang, the Mexican Mafia.

Poveda wasn’t interested in aestheticism

While convicted Mara members were expelled and deported back to El Salvador, resulting in a flourishing gang culture in Salvadorian prisons, the Mara continued to grow in the USA, rapidly branching off into major American cities, as well as other countries in Central America. Their omnipresence has provoked a counter-phenomenon known as Sombra Negra: anonymous vigilante troops, believed to be police or military officers, walking the extra mile off duty, or just ordinary citizens who have quite simply had enough.

“Mara 18” (Mara dieciocho), are seen as the rival offspring of the MS 13. The documentary The Crazy Life (La Vida Loca) observed the daily life of the Mara 18 in the La Campanera district of San Salvador over a period of three years.

Apart from the Mara’s complacency regarding human life, what immediately sets them apart are their striking tattoos, intricate patterns adorning most of their bodies, including the face, and in many cases the entire skull – a subcultural expression known from prisons all over the world, here taken a step further.

The Crazy Life presents a few members of the Mara 18, each of them alternating as the subject of Poveda’s focus – a technique employed due to more than just narratological considerations. The participants were available for limited amounts of time, for three main reasons, according to director Poveda: they quickly got impatient and bored with being filmed (who’d have thought it?), they were put in jail, or, as some of the protagonists depicted here, they were shot dead.

16 Mara 18

We meet the Mara members grieving their murdered friends and relatives, we follow them at birthday celebrations, funerals, hospital and court; we’re also introduced to a bakery led by a local NGO devoted to rehabilitating young people.

Poveda’s perspective seems quite sober at first glance: the greed of a vigilant camera is (mostly) balanced with the piety required not to come across as an impostor. Considering that the director’s career looks like a case of professional thrill-seeking, The Crazy Life is surprisingly unspectacular in form.

https://vimeo.com/20117498

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