IN THE PREFACE to A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, Óscar Martínez lists reasons people should read his book. He doesn’t promise solutions to the problems of his native El Salvador or Central America’s notorious Northern Triangle, but instead appeals to the reader’s humanity. We should make an effort to understand the violent crucible these countries have become, he intimates — especially during an election year in North America when talk of erecting walls and bolstering border enforcement are at an amplified high. A History of Violence goes to the root of the problem by exploring why and where refugees and migrants have emerged.
Martínez calls the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — the most murderous corner of the world. His statement is not hyperbolic. El Salvador, a country about the size of Massachusetts spreading over 8,000 square miles, is home to 6.3 million people. In September 2015, as his book was going to print, El Salvador averaged 23 murders per day. In contrast, over the almost 13 years of civil war from 1979–1992, the country averaged 16 deaths daily. As 2015 drew to a close, El Salvador surpassed Honduras and other deadly countries in the hemisphere with a homicide rate of roughly 105 per 100,000 people — over 20 times the 4.5 per 100,000 incidences of homicides in the United States. Neighboring Guatemala and Honduras are not far behind. “Today’s violence,” Martínez writes, “makes nonsense of the words ‘war and peace.’”
Much of the violence stems from the region’s gangs and cartels and their control and trafficking of narcotics, firearms, and people. In El Salvador alone, approximately 50,000 people are involved in gangs, and up to half a million more are economically dependent on them. These gangs, Martínez reminds us, are imports from the United States. Indeed, they bear names of the Los Angeles neighborhoods near MacArthur Park where they first originated.
Given the homicide and gang statistics, it is not surprising that people are fleeing in droves. In 2014, the United States media reported a “surge” of unaccompanied immigrant children at the US border. The incidence of immigrant children traveling alone had been steadily rising for years and reached a high of 68,000 in 2014. Young women with children arrived in similar numbers but did not receive the same media attention. Today, this steady exodus and attempted entry into the United States is on the rise again.
But calling the migration of unaccompanied immigrant children a “surge” was a misnomer given the actual numbers, which remained relatively small. In fact, it was hardly a crisis the US government could not handle. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration sought to send a strong message to women, children, and other would-be migrants and refugees. Every policy decision blared: “Don’t come.”
The Administration instituted expedited procedures for unaccompanied immigrant children, requiring them to present themselves in court almost immediately. The government also opened detention facilities for women and beefed up Mexico’s enforcement of its southern border, preventing migrants and refugees from reaching the United States. Lest these strategies prove insufficient, the US Department of Homeland Security also began conducting raids of Central Americans and deporting them back to their home countries.
Clearly, much is at stake with these policy decisions.
A History of Violence is divided into 14 stories, all written from 2011 to 2013 for the online Salvadoran newspaper El Faro, where Martínez is a journalist. As in Martínez’s first book, The Beast — where he traveled alongside migrants as they rode “La Bestia,” or the Beast (the nickname given the freight train on whose top rails migrants clutch for dear life while crossing Mexico en route to the United States) — he takes readers on a journey. This time, he stays in the Northern Triangle countries, but it’s no less hazardous of a journey — he travels where even the intrepid dare not go: to border towns between Honduras and Guatemala (no men’s lands where drugs flow easily and intruders who aren’t part of their swift transport are easily gunned down) and to prisons where he talks to convicted gang members about the vicious wars inside and outside prison walls. During these travels, he interviews state witnesses who have fled the gang life, traces the steps taken by trafficked women, and pays respect to a former state witness by attending the man’s funeral. One of the places he dares not visit, however, is a Guatemalan town ironically called “La Democracia” — “The Democracy” — a place so thoroughly controlled by cartels that his safety could not be guaranteed.
His journey leads him through the inner layers of governments so steeped in corruption that they barely function. When prosecutors seek to hold a notorious gang leader in jail, a judge automatically releases him despite substantial evidence. State witnesses whose helpful testimonies lead to multiple convictions are left like the walking dead, with little to no resources or protection, and the certainty that retribution will soon come from the targets they fingered.
Crime control in these states is a Sisyphean challenge. Martínez keenly shows this by narrating interviews with numerous contacts, including anonymous government officials, whose jobs seem futile. Capturing one cartel member almost always results in his replacement with a bigger fish whose extensive criminal networks will only wreak more havoc.
Toward the middle of the book, Martínez focuses on a forensic investigator who is attempting to unearth bodies that are believed to lie at the bottom of a well. It is located in Turín, a small city in western El Salvador. State witnesses have testified to the presence of the bodies inside the well, and the investigator must recover them within certain time constraints or else jailed kingpins will be set free. The investigator works steadily, even when the Ministry of Public Works withdraws its tools and the rains render the work almost impossible. Still, the investigator labors. The chapter serves as a metaphor for the criminal justice system.
In another scene, Martínez shows a poor family packing to leave their slum dwelling after a drug gang threatens to massacre those who remain. The departing family members are sobbing alongside their belongings while a group of police officers reassure families and urge them to stay. Television crews report the events. There is a sense of randomness, of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In these countries, life is cheap and fear is palpable. States offer little to no protection. They are governing kleptocracies, feeding powerful international cartels. One wonders how citizens of these countries survive, how they shop for groceries — whether they attend school. Through Martínez’s clear prose, the reason for the increase in the number of migrants and refugees begins to emerge.
Óscar Martínez spares few details while reporting on the massacres of police and migrants, the trafficking of men and women, and the effects of these killings on loved ones. This book is not for the faint of heart. Yet, he also finds humor, humanity, and even poetry in the most miserable criminals. Martínez is a gifted storyteller with an astute, observant eye and a voice that beckons to be followed. He writes, “Here live the nobodies. When the authorities leave or don’t do their jobs, the nobodies remain, living alone and according to laws set up by those filling the power vacuum, the laws of the blade and the bullet.”
A History of Violence is a necessary read, especially for US government officials crafting immigration policy against migrants and refugees from the region. It sheds light on why so many are braving the treacherous trek through Mexico to reach the United States.
My only misgiving with this volume is that Martínez’s courageous and laudable reporting could have been made all the more powerful with additional background, research, and analysis. The intertwined histories of the United States and the Northern Triangle countries are alluded to in the preface and foreword, but are never returned to. Most Americans do not know this history and need to be made aware of it, if only so that we won’t so easily wash our hands of the intractable problems festering in the region. Indeed, a distinct connection exists between the 1954 US-backed coup in Guatemala and the country’s later plunge into civil war. Direct links can be made between the US Cold War policies that financed wars in the region and the metastasized narco-trafficking that emerged in their aftermath. Moreover, it would be interesting for Martínez to compare how the US government treated refugees during the 1980s with the way it is currently treating them. All of this could promote greater understanding. And, as Martínez notes, understanding appears to be the region’s only hope.