Jailed former gang members squeezed into isolation cell together for their own safety after coming out as gay

gay inmates in El Salvador prison

Gay former gang members in an El Salvador prison are being squeezed into an isolation cell together for their own safety.

According to TIME, in 2019, photographer and reporter Carlos Martinez visited San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador and was shown a one by two meter isolation cell where nine former gang members were being kept after coming out as gay.

Although he had visited the prison for a photography project, as soon as he left, he spoke with director Marlén Viñayo and their journey to create the short documentary Unforgivable began.

Martinez said the idea of openly gay gang members “was completely unheard of” in El Salvador, adding: “In the gangs, if there’s even the suspicion that you’re gay, you pay for it with your life.”

San Francisco Gotera prison has made headlines in recent years, as the majority of its inmates have been converted to evangelical Christianity by pastors since 2015.

This means that not only do gay inmates have to contend with gang violence, they also have to deal with preaching telling them that homosexuality is equal to murder.

The documentary makers were shocked that four of the nine gay inmates in the isolation cell agreed to participate, and repeatedly asked them whether the film would put them at risk.

But, Viñayo said: “The truth is that they are already condemned: they’ve left the gang, they’ve lived with former members of other gangs, and they’ve lived openly as gay people.

“If they ever got out of prison, they’d have nowhere to go. One of them said the only solution would be to live in the sewer.”

Unforgivable mainly focuses on a gay inmate named Geovany, who was a hitman for one of El Salvador’s main gangs before he was jailed.

Geovany spends 24 hours per day in the cell with his partner and the seven other gay former gang members, many of whom struggle with their sexuality and religion.

He says in the film: “I think killing a person, yes it’s bad, but it’s not that difficult. But loving another man, that’s not natural.”

Martinez said in making the documentary, they were careful not justify the horrific crimes the men have committed, and insisted that Unforgivable is not actually about gangs at all.

He said: “We want to create a reflection — from this extreme place of the prison isolation cell — of the kind of society we have built.

“How is it possible for a country to have its moral compass so broken that homosexuality and murder can feel the same?”

According to Human Rights Watch, LGBT+ people in El Salvador face violence, discrimination, “torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, excessive use of force, illegal and arbitrary arrests and other forms of abuse, much of it committed by public security agents”.