Controversial French filmmaker Christian Poveda has been shot dead while making a documentary in a rural area in El Salvador.
The 52-year-old Poveda, whose 2008 La Vida Loca provoked controversy earlier this year, was found shot in the head in a car in Tonacatepeque, a rural region north of San Salvador.
Police says Poveda had been driving back from filming in La Campanera, a poor, overcrowded ghetto and a stronghold for the infamous Mara 18 gang, which was the subject of La Vida Loca (Crazy Life).
The heavily tattooed Mara 18 gangsters are suspected to be behind the killing and Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes has ordered a thorough investigation.
La Vida Loca closely follows the hopeless and brutal lives of Mara 18 members, a number of whom were killed or jailed during the filming of the documentary.
The film won the Guadalajara Film Festival Memory Award this spring, and had been selected for the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Morelia Festival in Mexico and the International del Nuevo Cine Latin-American festival in Cuba.
In April, Poveda told the Los Angeles Times that despite the drugs, shootings, beatings and cruelty he captured on the film, he had sympathy for many of the gang members, whom he described as "victims of society."
He placed the blame for the violent gangs in El Salvador on U.S. policies, and said he "was never afraid of them."
"As savage as they can be, they're people of their word. The gangs are very well-structured organizations and the decision made by a gang is the final one. From the moment I understood that, I had no problems," he said.
“We have to understand why a 12- or 13-year-old child joins a gang and gives his life to it,” Poveda said in a recent interview with Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro.
“Children who have terrible family problems, or come from poor families who don't have time to take care of their children.”
The film develops the idea that although gangs spread terror, they also testify to the fact that young gang members are captivating and representative of the family life breakdown in El Salvador, the country with one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.
Christian Poveda first went to El Salvador as a photographer for Time magazine to cover the civil war in the early 1980s. He returned after the armed conflict was over to cover street gangs.
The Mara 18 and rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs make up a huge criminal network that runs from Los Angeles, where a diaspora of Salvadoreans lives, down through chunks of Central America.
Authorities estimate there could be as many as 30,000 so-called mareros, who sell drugs, rob illegal migrants or extort businesses in the tiny country of just 5.7 million people.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called Poveda "a respected journalist; a professional who never hesitated to take great risks in the name of freedom of information".
Reporters Without Borders deplored Poveda's murder. Fellow journalist Alain Mingam, a member of the Reporters Without Borders board, said this about his close friend:
“Christian was the son of Spanish Republicans who sought refuge in France. It was from his origins that he derived the strong humanist convictions to which he always remained faithful. He was a reporter in Chile, under the Pinochet dictatorship, in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was very committed and involved in his subjects without taking sides. His humanistic convictions went hand in hand with a great deal of professional rigour.
“He had an original approach and an incredible ability to penetrate the worlds he was filming, whether AIDS or anti-fascism in France or the Salvadorean maras. For him, the way a film was edited was more important that any comments you made. This was how he restored humanity to people like the ‘mareros’ regardless of how monstrous their actions were. Christian’s personal involvement in his subject even resulted in his being approached by gangs who saw him as a possible mediator.”
"La Vida Loca" (WARNING: This movie trailer contains graphic violence)