The gang’s most important hand sign, the garra or claw, started as Black Sabbath’s “sign of the horns.” You will see the same thing in the crowd at any heavy metal concert. La bestia, the beast, a mythical name for the gang itself, came from lyrics like those of Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast.” The ironies point to how closely the United States was involved in the gang’s story. When some members were deported back to El Salvador in the 1990s, they reconstituted their “cliques” with the names of familiar L.A. streets: the Parvis Locos after Park View Street on the edge of MacArthur Park; the Normandie Locos Salvatrucha and Western Locos Salvatrucha after Normandie and Western Avenues in the same vicinity.
Many of the first MS-13 in Los Angeles were refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s, when the United States was spending over $5 billion arming and training allies of the oligarchical government. Some influential early gang members even fought in it. The MS-13 has often been named in a specious argument linking immigrants to crime — even though experts agree immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the general public — but those making the argument forget or ignore how US policies helped create the gang in the first place.
Óscar and Juan José Martínez focus their book, The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman, on one gang member, using his biography as a kind of “microhistory” to show how global politics and long-term sociocultural processes can determine the course of a life. Miguel Ángel Tobar, who went by the name The Hollywood Kid, was a member of the Hollywood Locos of Atiquizaya, Ahuachapán, a place in Western El Salvador. During Tobar’s 31 years, he committed more than 50 murders and, in the United States, he might have been “part of that club of serial killers who occasionally become fodder for the History Channel,” the Martínez Brothers write. But Tobar never traveled to the United States or saw the boulevard after which he and his gang were named. In fact, he could not even pronounce it. “Haleewoo,” he would say.
The book is not a biography. Tobar is the lens through which the Martínez Brothers tell the story of the gang for which he lived and died. They leap between past and present, between Los Angeles and El Salvador, between Tobar’s gang and his family, influences, environment, and place in Salvadoran history, as if to insist on the interrelation of all these parts. To explain the dire poverty of Tobar’s childhood, they go back as far as 1850, when indigenous communities were first co-opted into an agricultural labor force for a new export crop, coffee. They tell the story of the 1932 government massacre of 30,000 mostly indigenous peasants. They describe how Tobar’s father was crippled by a workplace accident and forced to continue doing menial jobs on coffee plantations, working with a crooked spine, one good arm, and lots of pain. They tell us how Tobar’s mother lost other children to things like measles, a soft spot on the head, a stomach bug.
To understand Tobar, we need context and history. We need to see that the serial killer did not come out of nowhere, that for generations his family had suffered abject poverty, violence, exploitation, that “[h]e was the product of a long series of violent acts.” We need to see that Tobar was not a monster or an animal but a human being, and that his story, sinister and distasteful though it may be, makes a human sort of sense.
And yet, the Martínez Brothers begin narrating it exactly where a History Channel version might start. Tobar is 11 years old, hiding in the bushes of a coffee plantation, watching two men get drunk on Christmas Eve. The one who passes out first is his father. The other is the foreman to whom Tobar’s father, in exchange for alcohol, has given permission to rape his eldest daughter. When the foreman stumbles away, the boy slips out from the bushes behind him and crushes his skull with a rock. A life of violence begins with a scene of family melodrama. Readers will find other “History Channel” moments in The Hollywood Kid. They will read sentences reminiscent of voice-over narrations from daytime-television docudramas, like, “There’s an indigenous saying that coffee, a cursed plant, thrives on blood. That’s why coffee berries are red,” and, “On that Christmas Eve, 1994, Miguel Ángel Tobar failed in his first attempt at murder. It was a skill he would later perfect.”
El Faro reporters have broken many important news stories, but they have also sometimes been criticized for the style of journalism they write, something of a mix between a New Yorker feature article and a Latin American form called crónica, which prioritizes literary scenes and narrative voice over information.
Literary journalism can be torn between dual imperatives — the literary business of storytelling and the journalistic business of informing — though in the best examples the two sides of the coin can complement each other. A 2016 collaboration saw an El Faro reported piece, co-written by Óscar Martínez, run on the front page of The New York Times. But the relationship did not continue. The El Faro editorial process was too slow for the Times reporters and its narrative scenes and extensive context were at odds with the crisp Times style.
There are flashes of sensationalism in The Hollywood Kid that at times muddle the narrative tone. Perhaps they are meant to inspire outrage and political action; perhaps the story could not be told without reference to certain macabre details. But, as often happens with political art, denunciatory and artistic imperatives can sometimes conflict. Readers can be left disenchanted by the writing, rather than stirred to action.
There is an audience in the United States hungry for stories of Latin American violence and crime, which makes it all the more necessary for literary representations to strike the right balance. There can be no doubt about the motives or commitment of the Martínez Brothers or of the other El Faro reporters, who have spent two decades exposing uncomfortable truths and uncovering stories of injustice. They have been praised around the world, and for good reason. Their work has reminded thousands that, even in regions struck by abysmal violence and poverty, principled reporting can shine a light. The story the Martínez Brothers tell in The Hollywood Kid is gripping and essential, especially for American readers who know nothing much about the history of the gang whose very human members Trump calls “animals.” But representations can have a life of their own: Martínez’s first book, The Beast, a work of careful literary reporting on Central American migrants crossing Mexico by freight train, helped inspire less careful representations. Martínez is named among the writers “whose work you should read if you want to learn more about Mexico” in the acknowledgments section of Jeanine Cummins’s much criticized novel American Dirt, in which Cummins turns all those Central American migrants into Mexicans.
Readers might be surprised to learn just how young The Hollywood Kid was when his life was first warped by the long history of violence in Central America, when the Mephistopheles of his story first arrived in Atiquizaya, direct from Los Angeles. In fact, it was the arrival of two cousins, both deportees from Los Angeles, that changed Tobar’s life. The first to show up had the unforgettable nickname of Moncho Garrapata (Moncho the Tick or the Moocher), who came bringing news of a gang called Barrio 18 or 18th Street. But Tobar fell under the spell of Moncho’s cousin, José Antonio Terán, or Chepe Furia (José Fury), whose story would make a compelling "microhistory" of its own. Terán had fought in the Salvadoran Civil War for the infamous National Guard, a government police force now remembered for abductions, torture centers, and death squads. During the war, anyone suspected of ties to the communist rebel forces disappeared into a feared system of secret prisons, usually without much hope for survival. “The National Guard in those years was not unlike the Gestapo in Nazi Germany,” the Martínez Brothers write. The National Guard also happened to be on the side of the civil war lavishly funded, armed, and trained by the US government.
By the time Terán arrived in Los Angeles, the satanic rockers had changed names and haircuts. They were no longer the Stoners and, faced with urban violence and poverty, they had become like other local gangs, even joining, in 1993, a decades-old network of California gangs known as the Mexican Mafia. That is what the number 13 represents, the 13th letter of the alphabet, M.
When Terán arrived in the San Fernando Valley, he joined the Fulton Street Locos and became El Veneno (The Poison). And it was during this period that the Mara Salvatrucha began earning the reputation for horrific violence that would become something like its trademark. Or in the much more frightening words of a former member, as the Martínez Brothers write them, “Over there in California they thought they knew what violence was. Fuck no! We taught them the meaning of violence.” Meanwhile the other 99.99 percent of Salvadoran refugees in California were busy working, opening businesses, advocating for political asylum, and forming one of the city’s most important Latin American communities.
Many of those gang members would be deported back to El Salvador during the 1990s, especially after the Clinton administration’s 1996 immigration reform, one of the key steps in the beginning of the criminalization of the immigration system. “The early gestation of the gang,” the Martínez Brothers write, “was the result of a bad decision by US authorities, who thought they could solve a problem by expelling it. They thought they were spitting out the window, but they were spitting straight up into the sky.” Mass deportation backfired. Back in El Salvador, a fragile truce following the brutal war left the social fabric rent and the new state ineffectual. The gangs expanded among the poor and traumatized young survivors, many of whom saw little other future for themselves. At the same time, some of the new members recruited in Central America began returning to the United States as undocumented migrants, and eventually terrorizing immigrant communities here.
Since the early 2000s, Central America has seen gang violence reach epidemic proportions, and governments in El Salvador have struggled to respond, falling back in recent years on failed “mano dura” hardline positions, after negotiating a brief but ultimately ineffectual truce. Meanwhile, reporting on death squads made up of police and former military officers, with a pattern of extrajudicial killings of gang members, has reminded observers of the Salvadoran Civil War–era state security forces. This history of violence just won’t end, it seems.
José Antonio Terán and Miguel Ángel Tobar are only a chapter, perhaps just a footnote. Once back in Atiquizaya, El Veneno became Chepe Furia. While his cousin Moncho the Tick was organizing a new Salvadoran faction of the Barrio 18 gang in Atiquizaya, Chepe Furia transformed a group of adolescent boys into a rival MS-13 clique. Many were already violent or involved with local gangs, but the big gang structures imported (or deported) from California, with their initiation rituals, codes of conduct, and decades-old rivalry, brought something more like ideology. As the Martínez Brothers put it, these were “kids with little meaning in their lives beyond the antagonisms whipped up against other kids like themselves. I hate therefore I am.” Chepe Furia took advantage of their desperation and turned them not only into gangsters, but also into his enforcers. He became something closer to a mafia boss, using a personal army of teenage murderers to extort, intimidate, and corrupt — though El Faro’s extensive reporting has shown that most gang leaders in El Salvador are, to the contrary, barely solvent, and that the gang is a “mafia of the poor.”
Years later, the Hollywood Kid wore a mask and voice-disguising technology into a courtroom to testify in the convictions of 46 members of his former gang. Chepe Furia, the boss, eluded prison longer than most, as the federal judge for his district kept deciding, mysteriously, that he did not pose a flight risk. Then, after he had fled, a police operation with 500 officers raided 70 gang members’ homes, only for the power to go out on Chepe Furia’s entire neighborhood the moment they arrived, allowing him to slip away in the shadows. The story reads like the Central American version of a Scorsese film. Tobar was one of the gang’s most feared and respected killers, until he discovered that his own gang had murdered his brother. He began killing the former friends who had done it, one by one, in secret, though MS-13 rules demand that anyone who kills a member of the gang without permission should be killed. Only after he was discovered, caught between his enemies from the other gang and his former friends, did he agree to become a protected state witness — yet witness protection, for Tobar, meant moving into a one-room shack behind a rural police station with his underage “wife,” where he spent four years cultivating marijuana and telling the Martínez Brothers true stories from his life of crime.
Eventually, the meager ration of monthly supplies that the government provided him stopped coming. Tobar and his young family were forced to go into hiding on their own. Most of his enemies were in jail by then and he managed to elude the gangs — until, inevitably, he made a mistake. He was shot in the back in the street after riding his bicycle to a place called San Lorenzo, where he went to legally recognize his newborn daughter. Readers of The Hollywood Kid will feel sorry for him, as much as it is possible to sympathize with anyone who did things as awful as Tobar did. But you may also feel a bit like you’ve seen this movie before.
Nevertheless, the dire circumstances of his life and death will reveal something to readers here in the United States. The Martínez Brothers manage to convey an idea of the Hollywood Kid’s desperation, his sense of being born for bad luck and beset by trouble all his life. “The Kid’s story has one consistent thread: everything always turns out badly,” they write. “Everything always happens at the wrong time. His fate only heads in a single direction: from bad to worse.” Some people never get a chance or a break. After 12 years of civil war, the postwar peace in El Salvador somehow turned out even more violent — things have gone “from bad to worse” — and the United States is “tangled up” in all the reasons why. Readers may need the Martínez Brothers’ reminder of how we helped to create “something monstrous, transnational […] a history of violence that endures — that is living, breathing, growing, and migrating.”
Jeff Peer is a writer and teacher from California, whose reviews have appeared in The Millions, Hyperallergic, and other journals. Follow him on Twitter.