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Hairdressers take a break from their work at a hair salon in San Salvador
AP/Manu Brabo
Living in the shadows.
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Photos: Women are dyeing their hair in El Salvador to avoid gang violence

The US issued a new travel warning this week to caution US citizens traveling to El Salvador, as the country endures one of its most violent periods since the end of the civil war in 1992. In May alone, 635 people were killed in the country, and the death toll for June may reach new heights: In the first ten days of the month, there were 240 homicides reported.

At this pace, El Salvador could soon surpass its neighbor Honduras as the most dangerous peace-time country in the world.

The violence, which is mainly gang-driven, is captured in a graphic reportage by Pulitzer-winning photographer Manu Brabo published this week by the Associate Press. One poignant sign of the problems facing the country (depicted in the photo above of Salvadorian women in a salon with black hair) is a rumor spread on the streets and through social media that only girlfriends of gang members are now allowed to have blonde or red hair, according to AP correspondent Alberto Arce. Local media have reported similar sentiments in the capital (link in Spanish), as gangs dispute control over some areas like Las Margaritas, and as far as Honduras (link in Spanish), where Salvadorian gangs are also present.

Both the police and the gangs have released statements denying the rumor, but many women, too scared to take the risk, have dyed their hair to avoid confrontation. Maria Jose Estrada, a resident of San Salvador who dyed her blonde hair dark, told the AP in a story published on June 22: “You don’t wait for clarifications,” and, “These people are crazy and they will kill you.”

What’s driving the surge in crime dates back to 2012, when the country’s dominant “maras” or gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (nicknamed MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Neighborhood), agreed to pedal back the violence in exchange lighter prison conditions for their leaders, which included privileges to communicate with other gang members from prison.

The truce came to an end last year under a new government, which scrapped the prison concessions and vowed to crack down on gang-related crime (which spans from murder to extortion, kidnapping, and drug distribution) by creating police special units to patrol the streets.

Below, a compilation of Brabo’s photos depicting the gravity of everyday life under these pressures.

AP/Manu Brabo
At a hair salon in downtown San Salvador, where fearful Salvadoran women ditching their blonde hair and dyeing it black.
AP/Manu Brabo
An injured man is picked up by police officers after being tortured in San Salvador.
AP/Manu Brabo
The sister of a man murdered by a gang faints after identifying his body.
AP/Manu Brabo
A suspected gang member is detained by the police in San Salvador.
AP/Manu Brabo
Members of the the fast response police unit detain an alleged member of a “mara.”
AP/Manu Brabo
Bones uncovered from a clandestine cemetery in the village of Zacatecoluca, where victims of gang violence are buried. Gang members have been escaping to the country to escape the government crackdown, taking the violence with them.
AP/Manu Brabo
Alleged members of the 18th Neighborhood gang in a police station in San Salvador.
AP/Manu Brabo
A police patrol drives past a brothel in San Salvador, as the government ramps up security measures to combat gangs.
AP/Manu Brabo
Images of missing people are tacked to a wall at the capital’s Institute of Legal Medicine, which hosts a major forensic institute.
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