First Person: ‘I remove tattoos from gang members’

First Person: ‘I remove tattoos from gang members’

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First Person: ‘I remove tattoos from gang members’

Suyapa Bonilla, a neighbourhood nurse in Honduras, helps ‘mareros’ blend in and hopefully get jobs

I started removing mara , or gang tattoos, in 2000. It was when Father David La Buda of the Maryknoll mission was parish priest here in Chamelecón, San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras. Petty thieves used to approach him in the street asking for money, and when he asked why they weren’t working, they said it was because they had gang tattoos. No one would give them a job because they were frightened of the gang connection. That’s how the idea was born.

I’m the neighbourhood nurse. I went to San Antonio, Texas, for three days to be trained in how to remove tattoos using infrared light. Laser treatment is really expensive and dermabrasion is very rough. I’ve met people who’ve heated up an iron and put it on their tattoo, or put a machete in the fire and then on their skin. When you try things like that, it’s because you really want to get rid of your tattoo.

When we started, we used to have queues of people coming here. This part of town is controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, the MS-13, but there are other neighbourhoods nearby under the control of the M-18, and the two sides fight when the M-18 try to encroach on MS-13 turf. I’ve had M-18 members come in here in disguise, and I still have some in treatment. When I started this, I had to put up some gang members in my house until their families could get them out of town. They slept together with my children. Suyapa Bonilla ©Carlos Alvarez Montero

I have brought up six children – five of my own, and one that I was given – and my youngest was 10 at the time. The mareros have to tell their leaders why they want to remove their tattoos – if they just went ahead and did it they would be […]