GOP gubernatorial candidate attacks rival with stolen photo of gang from El Salvador

"El Faro did not authorize use of the photograph"

A screenshot from Ed Gillispe’s ad
A screenshot from Ed Gillispe’s ad

An attack ad by Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie that warns Virginia residents of the menacing threat of the MS-13 gang features a photograph taken from a Salvadoran news site without permission, and portrays members of a rival gang photographed inside a prison in El Salvador, not MS-13 members in Virginia.

ThinkProgress confirmed that the photograph was originally published by the online digital newspaper, El Faro, which is headquartered in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador, and that neither the news site nor the photographer gave Gillespie permission to use the photo.

In the television commercial, a narrator describes MS-13 as a menace while El Faro’s photograph, stamped with the words “Kill, Rape, Control” flash across the screen. Gillespie’s commercial tries to pin the increase in MS-13 violence on Democratic rival Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and criticizes the democrat for his vote against a Virginia bill that would have banned sanctuary cities, which do not actually exist in Virginia.

El Faro Reporter Roberto Valencia confirmed that the gang members in the photograph are not members of MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly translates to Salvadoran gang.


“El Faro did not authorize [Gillespie’s] use of the photograph,” wrote Valencia in a message in Spanish to ThinkProgress, noting that a portion of El Faro’s income is derived from the resale of original content such as photographs.

The photograph in fact depicts the Sureños faction of the Barrio 18 gang, also known as the 18th Street gang here in the United States, and was taken in 2012 by photojournalist Pau Coll Sanchez of the RUIDO Photo agency. Coll, now based in Spain, also confirmed to ThinkProgress that he did not give permission for the photograph to be reprinted or used in the commercial by Gillespie.

When reached for comment regarding the use of the stolen photograph, Gillespie’s spokesman David Abrams confirmed to ThinkProgress via email that the photo was unlicensed. Abrams also did not dispute that it did not actually depict MS-13. Nevertheless, the campaign believes their use of the photo is “‘fair use’ under U.S. law.”

Our legal counsel has reviewed the ad and concluded that the use of this photo is ‘fair use’ under U.S. law in light of the nature and character of the use, how long it is on screen, and the fact that we added our own words, commentary and music, and are making use of it to prove the public policy point that government needs to act to reduce the threat of violent gangs in the United States. Ed has made public safety and gang eradication a top priority. No matter if the image is MS-13 or Barrio 18, Ed is committed to eliminating the threat of gang violence to his fellow Virginians.

The photograph was featured in a 2014 story written by Valencia about the Salvadoran government’s efforts to separate its three largest gangs into different prisons. The prison featured in the photograph, Centro Penal de Cojutepeque, has now been closed, Valencia told ThinkProgress.


In Gillespie’s commercial, Coll’s photograph is used to illustrate the rise in violence tied to MS-13, a Salvadoran immigrant gang that originated in Los Angeles, but whose members were deported by immigration authorities in the 1990s, which in turn led to a surge in violence in El Salvador.   

An uptick in gang killings has occurred over the past two years — including multiple high-profile and brutal MS-13 gang killings from Long Island to Northern Virginia, but gang experts have cautioned that suppression tactics without prevention and intervention will do little to prevent youth from joining the U.S.-based gangs.  

Longtime Maryland gang outreach worker Luis Cardona, who oversees multiple prevention and intervention programs in Maryland, described the commercial as fear driven and based on a negative, false narrative.   

“The fact remains that the majority of those individuals who have been arrested for gang-involved crimes are U.S. citizens. That has not changed,” said Cardona, the administrator for the Positive Youth Development Initiative for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.


Indeed, at a recent Senate hearing focusing on MS-13 and its nexus to illegal immigration, arrest figures released by ICE officials showed that gang members are more likely to be U.S. citizens than undocumented immigrants.

One operation cited during the hearing was Project New Dawn, which targeted gangs nationwide this spring and resulted in 1,378 arrests, most of whom were U.S. citizens, and the remainder (445) were foreign nationals from 21 countries throughout the world.

Cardona also emphasized the importance of understanding the motives behind the immigrant youth who join gangs, particularly those who have been separated from their parents for years because they remain behind in El Salvador. The youth have trouble adjusting once they rejoin their parents in the United States, and become easy prey for gang members. 

“If you are going to talk about the growth of these gangs – and nobody is talking about this – you have to talk about the fragility of these families and the issues that are leading these kids to go down that path,” said Cardona.