Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo, the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in the town as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end. Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place. The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids. There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.
The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common. As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand. When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.
There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years. Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million. Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.
The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison. A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras. These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.
No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter. His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.
To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered. He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves. Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.
Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from. A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort. With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’
Martínez ignores nothing and noone. He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations. He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.
None of this is macho danger zone posturing. It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining. Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets. His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.
This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer. In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’
Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:
‘My proposal is that you know what is going on. Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution. I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves. You can be the waves. ‘
And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:
‘This book isn’t about Martians. It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet. It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television. This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning. It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing. These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst. It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’
Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’. As a consequence:
‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process. We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians. We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families. We are ignorant of peace. We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’
No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America. Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’
That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have. All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.