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Talking Policy: Óscar Martínez on Gang Violence

When the United States began to deport Central American immigrants who had become involved in criminal activities, they returned to countries with weak institutions recovering from years of civil strife—favorable conditions for establishing gangs and trafficking networks. World Policy Journal spoke with acclaimed Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez about the rampant gang violence in the region and why people choose to migrate from Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, as featured in his new book, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America. Martínez, who based his book on six years of reporting from these three countries, explains the role of the U.S. in the expansion of the Central American drug trade, as well as the changes needed to combat the culture of violence.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: How long did you spend traveling throughout Central America interviewing and speaking with the people featured in your book?

ÓSCAR MARTÍNEZ: The project along the journey that gave life to the book The Beast finished in November 2009—we left Mexico that year. I dedicated most of 2010 to writing it, and afterward I did constant trips to El Salvador. By 2009, El Salvador was already considered one of the most violent cities in the world by the index of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Therefore, we started asking ourselves why had we become one of the most violent cities. We started trying to understand the reasons that made not only El Salvador, but also Honduras and Guatemala, such violent countries. The response was that we did not understand why. We could assume it was things such as gangs, or in certain situations the absence of state—we could assume a lot of the things but we could not respond to this question with any of them. So we decided with a group of colleagues, all extraordinary reporters, to create a special investigation team belonging to our newspaper, El Faro, and name it “Sala Negra” (black living room). We created that group in January 2011, and since then we have been a group of reporters that works exclusively covering topics of violence. I have dedicated a part of the group to exclusively cover topics associated with gangs, organized crime, and the culture of violence. The book A History of Violence comes from that coverage, which I have been doing for six years in three countries: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

WPJ: Could you explain how you separated the investigative reports in your book into the three sections: emptiness, madness, and fleeing?

OM: I always thought of it as an attempt to describe some of the characteristics that give life to the book. Emptiness is nothing less than the absence of the state. That is to say, Central America is a region with very weak states. Not only weak states, but also states that have been constructed under the logic to protect the status quo. To use a metaphor, this logic is to punish the one that robs a hen to eat, and not the one who deducts millions of dollars with banking strategies and transactions. So they are states that neglect a lot of their population, and it is precisely that population that lives in the zones where there is the most violence. The first chapter tries to explain or take a stance, but the names of all three chapters cross all of the reports. That is why the reports have unity, but I believe the first chapter has the reports that best reflect of the absence of state. In criminology theory, when a state withdraws someone else occupies that place. The second tries to explain what fills that emptiness: the madness that is at the core of the emptiness, or the absence of state. When the state withdraws itself, a series of things starts to occur, which I have liked to call madness even though it is an ordered madness in some way, a criminal madness. Madness is something that all three states are accomplices to. Finally, fleeing. Fleeing attempts to explain the necessity or the obligation that some people have to leave those countries, having to flee and look for something to do.

WPJ: In the book’s forward, John Lee Anderson mentions that there is a “slow burning outrage” about many of the Central American states’ seeming unwillingness to strongly address the issues of violence, corruption, and lawlessness. In your experience, what are the expectations Central Americans have for their governments to provide greater security and rein in the violence?

OM: I believe that what Central America is missing, and what Guatemala showed us last year, was that civil society has to organize itself. The solution for Central America is not going to come from the political class as a voluntary decision. We have passed already through an armed conflict and a process of peace. In both Guatemala and El Salvador, we have already passed through a post-war period, violence, and corruption. The absence of state continues to be endemic in the society of Central American counties. I believe that that in some sense has to do with the political class, which is the same or very similar to the one we had in the past 20 years. They are not really interested in change. To me, the only solution has to come from a society that is indignant, a society that continues to voice its opinion and protest. A society that moves like they did in Guatemala. A society that, with time, is less passive. That is the only option that I believe is a solution. It’s not close—Central American society is very unarticulated, but I believe that is the only chance. I do not believe that solution will come from high above.

WPJ: What are the origins of these violent gang actions?

OM: Gangs, primarily La Mara Salvatruca (also known as the MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang are gangs that were born in the United States. They were born in the south of California. The 18th is one of the oldest gangs that was born in the south of Los Angles. The 18th emerged somewhere around the 50s. At the beginning, they were mainly Mexicans, but then that started transforming. The Mara Salvatrucha was born in the 70s and is a gang that comes from the necessity that Central Americans defend themselves. Because the ecosystem of gangs in southern California, few gangs permitted Central Americans to join due to their nationalities. There was incipient immigration because of all the armed conflicts in the region. Mexican gangs protected their nationality, as did Puerto Rican gangs. Black gangs evidently did not permit that Central Americans enter, and of course, the supremacist white gangs for obvious reasons did not either. So the Mara Salvatrucha serves as an answer to the necessities of the young immigrant Salvadorians and Hondurans to integrate themselves into a group that would allow them to defend themselves. And that group in the middle of the ecosystem of gangs little by little started to professionalize as a criminal group. They started to imitate what they saw in their surroundings; the group started to convert itself into what its environment led it to become. Toward the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, the United States government decided to deport around 4,000 gang members with criminal records to three countries that were in the midst of violent conflict: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Those deported gang members found in Central America the perfect environment to form gangs. There were a lot of orphaned children, neglected children, or children with destroyed families due to the war and immigration. They found a weak state that was worried about other things and not about things it had not experienced yet, such as gangs. So then, far from the states’ eyes and with the disorder and the chaos necessary for a gang to become a perfect option for a young man, the gangs grew. They grew to breathtaking levels. Just in El Salvador those 4,000 deportees turned into 60,000 in a population of 6.5 million. Look at the origin of gangs in Central America, in societies with violence and inequality that affects a large part of the population. The United States implemented an inevitable strategy, without which the gangs would not have been able to prosper: the deportations. The United States did not understand the circular logic of immigration.

WPJ: What should the next step be in reducing violence and stemming the flow of narco-trafficking in and out of Central American? In particular, what role should the U.S. play in that endeavor?

OM: The United States in the first place in Central America has to find interlocutors that understand the situation. Usually they talk to political classes, and political classes don’t understand the problem of gangs. They have proved that multiple times, implementing tough plans since 2003 that have only caused gangs to increase. The United States has to find civil society organizations that understand gangs. It has to find new mediators that truly understand gangs because the United States doesn’t understand exactly what occurs in gangs in Central America. They stubbornly believe that gangs are drug traffickers, and yes, some are dedicated to trafficking small amounts, but that is not their principal purpose or definition as a group.

Second, you have to reform the justice system so that it serves not only the one that has money or when the media appears after someone’s son is assassinated, but also the farmer in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. The system is built to bring justice in those cases that involve those who are prominent in society.

Third, I believe the entire topic of the battle of drugs has to change radically in countries in Central America. Central American countries serve principally as passageways for drugs. El Salvador is not actually a country of drug trafficking, that’s just a theory some academics share—on the contrary, it is a country of money laundering. But it has proven that the current model of anti-drug war is absurd; it hasn’t functioned in any country, it hasn’t brought results, it hasn’t lowered the levels of addiction. That is to say, that there are certain concepts that in New York are applied very well, such as harm reduction for example, and that are much more effective in the battle against drugs. Furthermore, this model of a war against drugs is a war that will never end, as such a war cannot be won in a world with capitalist rules. You are trying to change the sale of a product with huge demand into not being sold. If a product has huge demand, under economic logic it is going to be sold, even if the product is a cadaver. That model requires too many resources from the state. It is absurd that it implicates so many people in countries that have few human resources and a lot of violence. To me, drug trafficking becomes a problem when it generates two consequences: corruption and violence. That is to say, when a group of criminals starts to infiltrate political circles, then drug trafficking is a problem. 

WPJ: In one of your stories, you talk about a police chief, El Tigre, who isn’t afraid to carry out the law—such as arresting corrupt politicians—while everyone else in the area is afraid to do so. How much of a difference are people like El Tigre making in combating corruption in Central America?

OM: El Tigre is an ambiguous character—as of today he is being charged with corruption. El Tigre is a character that I am trying to expose in the chronicles; he is a person who practically admits to committing mass murder but who also ensures that he does not take bribes or corrupt offers from big narco-trafficking groups. However, he cannot do anything to avoid these groups entering and distributing in his zone because they have already taken control of the area. El Tigre to me is a clear representation of how the anti-drug war is unsuccessful in countries in Central America. Everyone knows who the drug lords and the dirty politicians are, yet the police arrested the poor farmer who is carrying a small weapon. I never present this man as a hero—he is just someone who is not scared of the narcos.

WPJ: What person in your book do you think provides the most insight into the structure of gang violence in Central America?

OM: In this book, the person who helped me understand a lot because I spent so much time by his side was Miguel Ángel Tobar, “El Niño.” In fact, my next book is about him. I spent three years talking to him before he was murdered. Miguel is a clear example of many things, such as how the U.S. influenced the politics of Central America and how El Salvador is a country incapable of protecting a man who is under protective custody. Imagine: If the state allowed a witness protected man to be murdered like a dog in the street, what could happen to a common citizen?

WPJ: Given the power of these gangs, how were you able to do this reporting? Were you ever afraid?

OM: Fear is a natural experience that we as humans experience. The thing about being a reporter in organized crime is that you must have an intelligent strategy for everything. You must make sure you know everything about the group you are getting close to in order to understand when you are in the most danger. You must learn the codes and the lingo used. It is a strategy because you need to know exactly why you are going. There are reporters that want to write the story of a “hitman” but have no idea why. Describing how one man murders another is not so revealing—they pulled the trigger and shot someone in the head. That is not the difficult part. The difficult part is to understand why they are doing such a thing and why we should report it. Yes, I was scared at times, but fear is something that leaves you paralyzed and without any options. I normally foresaw and prevented things coming, and I pretty much had an idea of what I was getting myself into. I studied the people I was going to encounter well, and that made the fear less frequent. Additionally, I have always worked for a newspaper company that has always had the best interest of its reporters in mind. I have never been expected by my company to report a dangerous topic on a one-week deadline. I have always had the time to do my job in the time period I need.  

WPJ: What do you hope readers will learn from your book?

OM: First, what I am most interested in them learning is the conditions that many people flee from. Many are fleeing from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for three primary reasons: violence, poverty, and the absence of the state. Violence and poverty have a lot to do with why the governments of countries in Central America have abandoned their populations. I want my readers to understand those individuals around them who have fled their countries because of gang violence. I want them to understand that when the police are sent, the only help they provide is prayer. This is not a myth that we are interpreting in Central America. I am trying to introduce the reality of those in Central America to those in America. My expectation for my next book, El Niño de Hollywood, is for that message to reach the people. That the United States has a responsibility regarding what is happening in El Salvador. I think with chronicles like "Narco Hecho en Centroamérica” they can understand why the U.S. has a direct connection to the creation of the gang violence and the spread of drugs in Central America.  Nonetheless, my main goal is to spread awareness as to why so many people flee their homes due to the circumstances. Additionally, if my book can give some kind of awareness as to the U.S. role in the situation in these countries and why these people migrate, I will be completely satisfied.

*****

*****

This interview is translated from the Spanish by Marisela Rivera, a Master of Arts candidate in diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Walking the Tracks]

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