Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

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.

Obama’s New Threat

America has always had a contradictory and ambivalent attitude towards the outside world.  On the one hand it celebrates its heritage as a nation of immigrants and a place of refuge, to whom the Statue of Liberty holds out a torch for the world’s ‘tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’    At the same time American domestic and foreign policy has persistently identified everything-that-is-not-America as a potential souce of danger, racial and cultural debasement, or a threat to its security and national existence.

Throughout modern American history, these fears have attached themselves to a constantly changing array of threats.   In 1882, it was Chinese migrants, who subject to the first Chinese Exclusion Act after a racist campaign by California politicians.  In 1886 it was German anarchists in Chicago after the Haymarket bombings.   In 1920 it was the anarchists and radicals deported during the Palmer Raids.

During the Cold War it was communists or simply communism itself. In the 1980s, at the height of the Reagan wars in Central America, conservative politicians and op ed writers  would argue with a straight face that the Sandinistas had to be stopped in Nicaragua – a country with a population of about 3 million –  because otherwise they might invade Texas.

After the Cold War new threats emerged,  from ‘megaterrorists’ armed with WMD or infected with smallpox germs, to Muslim terrorists, or Muslims in general, or the Hispanic migrants who were intent on ‘taking back’ the American southwest or destroying American identity and replacing it with a hybrid ‘MexAmerica.’

Whatever they attach themselves to, these fantasies of invasion/penetration/envelopment are invariably invoked to justify some kind of military/security response,  whether it takes the form of ‘preventative’ military action abroad, or the militarisation of the US-Mexico border.

In the last two decades, self-styled border militiamen and conservative politicians have identified the US-Mexico border as a weak chink in America’s armour against an array of threats that include illegal immigrants, narcotraffickers, and – according to Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo adn others – Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

Successive US administrations have poured money into the border, boosting it with UAVs and other technologies of surveillance, new walls and fences and extra personnel, in an attempt to force undocumented migrants to undertake more difficult and inaccessible routes into the country.

These measures have certainly increased the lethality of migrant journeys, but they have not stopped migrants from coming, nor have they calmed anxieties about America’s ‘porous’ border.

And now a new threat to the border has materialised, in the shape of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America who have begun to appear in unprecedented numbers in Texas, Arizona, and California.  Between October last year and June 15, 52,000 Central American migrant children have been detained at the border, an increase of 90 percent over the previous year.

Many, if not most of these children, have fled from countries plagued by endemic drug and gang violence, in which children have been directly targeted by rival gangs or narcotraffickers.   Four Central American countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras –  are among the five countries with the highest murder rate in the world.

At the top of the list is Honduras, with 90 homicides out of every 100,000 people.   One survey has found that the murder rate in Central America is higher than it was during the worst period of the Iraq occupation.  In effect, child migration is a product of a massive humanitarian crisis in an undeclared conflict zone.

These developments are to some extent a consequence of the decades of American interference in Central American politics, from America’s support for the military regimes which drowned the region’s radical politics in blood during the 1960s and 80s, to the disastrous ‘drug war’, which transformed some of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world into the corrupt narco-economies and territorial battlegrounds that feed America’s drug habit.

Now these countries have become so dangerous that even their children cannot live in them,  and their parents have sent them abroad in an attempt to save them, or they have left themselves in search of a place of safety, only to find that they are now included in  the long list of foreign invaders and infiltrators who have threatened America’s security and existence.

The threat covers all ages, from pre-school toddlers accompanied by their brothers and sisters, to adolescents and teenagers, but there is no doubt in the minds of those entrusted with America’s security that they are a potential source of harm.

Thus Marine Corps General John Kelly, commander of US Southern Command,  has told the website Defense One of a ‘crime-terror convergence’ on the border that includes ‘ Lebanon’s Hezbollah’, but also an ‘incredibly efficient’ smuggling network, ‘ along which anything – hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children – can travel, so long as they can pay the fare.’

Notice the inclusion of children, up there with drugs, WMD and terrorists, and Hezbollah.  And Barack Obama takes this threat as seriously as SouthCom.  So much so that he has just asked Congress for $2 billion in emergency funds in order to undertake ‘an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.’

Obama has rightly identified the situation at the border as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, but instead of a humanitarian response he proposes to facilitate deportations of Central child migrants at the border, so that they can be sent back more easily and more quickly, regardless of why they left or what they are going back to.

Many of these children will already have survived the horrific journey up from Guatemala to the border which the Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez described so powerfully and so eloquently in his marvellous book The Beast.   Some will have walked the deadly migrant routes of La Arrocera, in Chiapas, Mexico, where migrants are regularly robbed, raped and killed with impunity.  Others will have ridden the train from Chiapas to Mexico City that Mexicans call La Bestia,  where gangs, rapists, thieves and corrupt cops prey on migrants.

That didn’t deter them, so it’s difficult to know what Obama could do to be more aggressive, short of carrying out drone strikes on child migrants in Chiapas.  There is a bleak irony in the fact that thirty years after the Reagan administration helped save Central America for democracy and capitalism through the promotion of state violence,  that the region’s children are now fleeing their homes to escape non-state violence, only to discover that there is no place for them, and that they are in fact considered a threat to America’s security, lifestyle and national existence.

Perhaps the ‘war on children’ should take its place with the ‘war on drugs, and the ‘war on terror’, and specialists will dedicate themselves to ‘counter-childrenism’ or warn the nation of ‘the childrens’ invasion.’

But probably not.  Because what Obama is planning is too shameful to be named.  Rather than help these children – either at the border or in their own countries – the president wants to keep them out and send them back.

And whatever spin his administration puts on it, there is nothing humanitarian about that.  It is merely one more indication of the depths to which even the richest and most powerful countries will sink in an attempt to shut themselves off from the world that they helped create