MANILA, Philippines - The fetid smell of garbage from neighboring dumpsites pervades in the air. Every so often, one would hear the sound of babies wailing in hunger. Children with fake tatoos roam around the maze-like shanty town.
Welcome to this huge sandy patch of land known as the Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company (Baseco) compound where 6,000 families currently live.
This 52-hectare labyrinthine shipyard, located at the South Harbor, Port Area in Manila, the Philippine capital, was originally planned as a world class resort with pristine white sand facing the famous view of Manila Bay. But it turned to be exactly the opposite -- a netherworld filled with tatooed gangsters and other desperate dwellers trapped in a vicious cruel cycle for survival.
In this place, even the simplest dreams disappear with the sun that fades into the horizon every afternoon.
You step inside most of the dimly-lit shanty houses and the piercing stench of liquor will greet you. On most nights, the men of Baseco give in to their vices to numb the pain of their difficult lives. Your eyes will be blinded not by the darkness but by nicotine smoke and the haze of shabu, the poor man's cocaine.
Filipino photojournalist Vicente Jaime "VJ" Villafranca saw through the haze. Beneath the tatoos and hardened faces of the gangs of Baseco are hopeful souls, he tells this blogger in an interview.
For roughly two years, Villafranca worked on his documentary, "Marked: Gangs of Baseco," now a globally-recognized opus. Every week, he would go to what others dubbed as hell on earth and spend time with the people of Baseco -- generations of gangsters, thieves and what-have-you.
Due to poor living conditions, the younger generations are forced to work and engage in criminal acts to put food on the table, he says. The subject of his documentary includes in particular members of the Chinese Mafia Crew, which he says, was once "heralded as as the gang to look out for."
But Villafranca has no messianic delusions. He simply wanted to show his audience the lives of the people of Baseco -- the faces behind their hardened exterior.
"The main goal of this documentary is not really to emit change or create a stir in the audience like in my other documentaries or the other documentaries of other photographers. It was basically a narration of people. It was to show my audience that these people exist and that however dangerous they are or however they seem to be 'gangsta' like, they wanted change in their lives," Villafranca says.
To this day, Villafranca's work in Baseco continues.
"Every week I would go back and spend time with them. I realized that these people were not really hardcore members anymore. They wanted out. I asked most of them. They didn't even finish highschool. Some reached highschool but didn't finish. It's hard," he laments.
When he first set foot in Baseco, Villafranca was surprised to see how even kids as young as 12 years old had been swallowed by the harsh life of being a gangster.
"They're young. But you can see in their faces and in their eyes that they emitted a certain vibe like they own the streets. After that I went back. Apparently, they weren't the real gang members. They were like the wannabes. So after that I met the senior gang members -- they were around 17 years old to mid-20s. They were out-of-school youths," he says.
In the course of his work, Villafranca would later learn that the whole gang culture is not that active anymore as it was right after a huge fire razed a large part of the shipyard in 2004.
Gang members, he says, are now trying to turn from their old ways, "hunting for decent work and trying to erase the tattoos that marked the old days when they were dangerous men." But as Villafranca continues with his work in the area, he also realized that getting out of the vicious cycle of crime and poverty has been a struggle for the gang members.
"Because they have criminal records, it's hard to look for decent jobs. They can work but as laborers or to pick vegetables in Divisoria," he says.
One of the senior gang members he interviewed -- his key to the whole gangster community -- is now working in a trophy-making store in Quiapo, another poverty-stricken district right at the heart of Manila.
Asked what he thinks should be done by people in power, Villafranca pauses and is silent for a while, unable to conceal the sadness in his eyes.
"Generally, the government -- say -- the next president* should think about people living in the shanty towns because the shanty entails a lot problems. That's the reason why the title of my documentary is Marked. Apart from their marks as gang members, the word shanty marks a person as somebody who cannot achieve something in life. It is a life of desperation," he says.
As such, he strongly hopes that the government would think about people living in the shanties. "If you have a concrete house, you would want more in your life. If you have a solid house, made of concrete, that would be a big boost to your morale, to your life and you would want something better," he says.
The story of the lives of Baseco is continuing. Gang members want out, a chance to live better, Villafranca says.
But in a country like the Philippines where resources that are supposedly for each and every Filipino are plundered by a few, genuine change and real, sustainable development remains farfetched.
The gang members of Baseco are thieves in their own right. They have stolen money and probably a thousand cell phones and have stuck knives on innocent bodies but their crimes are no match to the sins of those in power.
The real gangsters in this country are those who hold office in the august halls of government chambers in their designer tuxedos and seamless coat and ties; they who live in posh houses and ply the streets of Metro Manila in hulking sports utility vehicles with police escorts.
They, after all, have stolen ordinary Filipinos' shot at a better life. They have deprived people of a chance to watch the sunset without their dreams fading with it.
*presidential elections will be held in the Philippines on May 10