A Dark Tale of Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle

Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were collectively rocked by civil wars in the 1980s, leaving behind a legacy of violence, rampant crime, and weak rule of law. Italian photographer Federico Vespignani’s sombre series La Distancia delves into what the situation looks like today.


“If we do not find her at the end of the day she will be lost forever, I’m sorry for her mum,” says the forensic anthropologist and criminologist Israel Ticas, while looking at the thick vegetation around him. He is digging into the woods in a remote area controlled by the street gang La Mara Salvatrucha to find Reina Isabella Sanchez, a 20-year-old girl who disappeared in 2013. She was the girlfriend of a policeman. Reina will never be located.

In the area of the so-called “Northern Triangle” - home to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - violence has, over the last forty years, become part of life like the region’s periodic volcanic eruptions. Beyond the average murder rate of a war zone, people today are not just being killed, but they are actually vanishing.

Street gangs such as La Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and other criminal organisations rule over the population by fear: "Ver, oir y callar" (look, listen and shut up) is a motto you see on the walls, where the gangs dictate people's lives. The reaction of the Governments to rising organised crime and violence has been open war, in a sort of utopian idea in which violence should end violence.

In this context, the Northern Triangle has seen, for more than a decade, a systematic use of forced disappearance by criminal groups and law enforcement which blurred their role in a battlefield over the control of territory through fear. Mothers who can’t find their loved ones and Sicarios become the chorus of a painful melody revealing a grey area, where resilience, love, and dignity lie.

Words and Pictures by







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Federico Vespignani is an Italian photographer born and raised in Venice. He studied visual arts at IED in Rome, and upon graduation, he began working as a freelance photographer for editorial and corporate clients. His latest works revolve around the relationship between the individual and his fear mainly in Central America and Mexico. Find him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

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This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.

Portfolio review month, April 2019 | PHmuseum Education
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