Óscar Martínez’s New Book Vividly Demonstrates Why People Are Fleeing Central America

In ‘a History of Violence,’ the reporter and award-winning author of ‘The Beast’ looks at endemic drug violence

Ilan Stavans March 3, 2016

Members of the Mara 18 gang in court in Guatemala City on July 28th, 2015. (Johan Ordonez / Getty)

Cen­tral Amer­i­ca is the world’s dead­liest region when it comes to homi­cide rates. In 2015, El Sal­vador, for instance, had its most vio­lent year on record since the end of its civ­il war: 103.1 mur­ders per 100,000 cit­i­zens, com­pared to 4.5 in the Unit­ed States. But you’re unlike­ly to know it, because the region has com­mand­ed lit­tle glob­al atten­tion since the Cold War. As long as the peo­ple killing each oth­er are poor and the blood­shed is not export­ed, who cares?

'We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians. We’re living with violence, with death always close at hand.'

Yet the plight of immi­grants to the Unit­ed States, a cen­tral top­ic in the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, is in large part the result of this blood- shed. Ignor­ing it while debat­ing immi­gra­tion reform is like attempt­ing to cure an ill­ness with­out ever look­ing into its cause.

Óscar Martínez, a first-rate Sal­vado­ran inves­tiga­tive reporter who works for El Faro, the left-lean­ing Cen­tral Amer­i­can online news­pa­per, wants to change the tenor of the con­ver­sa­tion. For the past few years, he has made it his duty to chron­i­cle, in com­plex, terse­ly writ­ten pieces, the ins and outs of the Cen­tral Amer­i­can bloodshed.

In Span­ish, the tra­di­tion of the crónica is in-depth tes­ti­mo­ni­al reportage blend­ed with per­son­al essay, and Martínez is a wor­thy inher­i­tor. Through his jour­nal­ism, he says, he hopes to erode the broad indif­fer­ence to the blood­shed using the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the con­stant lap­ping of the waves, whether they are gen­tle or turbulent.”

In 2013, Martínez’s first book in Eng­lish, The Beast: Rid­ing the Rails and Dodg­ing Nar­cos on the Migrant Trail, fol­lows the lives of peo­ple leav­ing their homes in Guatemala, Hon­duras, El Sal- vador and Nicaragua for the Unit­ed States. They do the cross­ing by cling­ing to the roof and sides of The Beast, a train tra­vers­ing more than 2,000-miles across Mex­i­co. In 2014, over 100,000 of these migrants were appre­hend­ed by Mex­i­can immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, which gives a sense of the enor­mi­ty of this human relo­ca­tion. Thou­sands dis­ap­pear or die anony­mous deaths along the way, and thou­sands more are phys­i­cal­ly, men­tal­ly and sex­u­al­ly abused by gangs like La Mara Sal­va- trucha (MS-13), Bar­rio 18 and Miran­da Locos 13 — which aren’t a home-grown phe­nom­e­non, but start­ed in the Unit­ed States — and also by police officers.

Martínez and his inves­tiga­tive team have received death threats. In July 2015, he was forced to leave his home. Thank­ful­ly, he is still on the case. For that, we are all in his debt. He has fol­lowed The Beast with an extra­or­di­nary, equal­ly haunt­ing vol­ume, A His­to­ry of Vio­lence: Liv­ing and Dying in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, that attempts to explain why so many are eager to jump on the migrant train.

He focus­es on the war-torn north­ern tri­an­gle of Cen­tral Amer­i­ca where El Sal­vador and Guatemala meet. Com­posed of 14 long arti­cles writ­ten between 2011 and 2015, the vol­ume pro­files the vet­er­an gang­ster Chepe Furia; rapists and mur­der­ers par­doned bythe state in exchange for tes­ti­mo­ny against the gangs; gang infight­ing in pris­ons; and an expe­ri­enced coy­ote nick­named Señor Coy­ote, who elu­ci­dates the dif­fer­ence between a good coy­ote and a bad coy­ote — argu­ing that he is one of the for­mer, hon­est, who despis­es swindlers and is only inter­est­ed in the hap­py relo­ca­tion of migrants. Here, the read­er is tak­en beyond the typ­i­cal nomen­cla­ture of good guys ver­sus bad guys into the sub­tle and not-so-sub­tle modal­i­ties of evil.

Martínez’s work con­veys an inti­mate knowl­edge of the social and crim­i­nal ecosys­tem — both macro-lev­el con­text and telling minu­ti­ae. But because he isn’t afraid to fol­low dan­ger­ous paths, the result are jew­els with moments of intense emo­tion pre­sent­ed against a his­tor­i­cal back­ground that con­tem­plates mil­i­tary, social, eco­nom­ic, reli­gious, psy­cho­log­i­cal and all sorts of oth­er factors.

In The Mas­sacre of Sal­ca­já,” Martínez describes the killing of eight police­men in west­ern Guatemala dur­ing a wed­ding. It was the feast day of St. Antho­ny of Pad­ua. Martínez leads us through the maze of gang­sters, inspec­tors, politi­cians and oth­ers involved in the killing — what he calls the com­pli­cat­ed chess match that is Cen­tral Amer­i­can nar­co­traf­fick­ing.” At one point, the country’s min­is­ter of gov­ern­ment, in a press con­fer­ence, says the cul­prits bare­ly resem­ble human beings. They’re animals.”

Soon, the gov­ern­ment launch­es Oper­a­tion Dig­ni­ty,” a cam­paign to root out the oper­a­tion of a big-time drug deal­er called Guayo Cano. Martínez quotes some stag­ger­ing sta­tis­tics: 16 arrests, 43 raids, $117,226 seized, the decom­mis­sion of 30 pis­tols, 12 rifles, nine machine guns, three shot­guns, 4,412 rounds of var­i­ous cal­ibers, 65 vehi­cles, 56 cell phones, eight mil­i­tary uni­forms, ten bal­a­clavas, six bags of caus­tic soda, one ounce of cocaine, 67 fight­ing cocks, 16 deer, 43 pure­bred hors­es and four wild birds.” How­ev­er, it quick­ly looks as if Guayo Cano’s arrest has only shak­en up the chess­board. While the oper­a­tion made the gov­ern­ment look tough, play­ers like Guayo Cano act basi­cal­ly like a tag team,” Mar­tinez dis­cov­ers after talk­ing with peo­ple in the region. One of them is killed or extra­dit­ed to the Unit­ed States and then anoth­er tags in. The war against drugs, seen from this per­spec­tive, is infinite.”

Martínez is just get­ting start­ed. He tells us that 90 per­cent of the cocaine that arrives in the Unit­ed States pass­es through Guatemala. Evan­gel­i­cal church­es and law offices are the most com­mon mon­ey laun­der­ers for drug traf­fick­ers. I am in awe of Martínez’s com­mand­ing style. No one is like­ly to come out read­ing A His­to­ry of Vio­lence with a feel­ing that things are like­ly to change soon. In fact, he might be described as a pes­simist — although in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca pes­simism is a gen­er­al­ized con­di­tion. The truth is that he is a real­ist of the high­est order, one who por­trays law­less, bank­rupt states, run by dis­en­gaged elites, inca­pable of safe­guard­ing their over­all pop­u­la­tions and made of dis­or­ga­nized, cor­rupt and poor­ly trained police. All this cre­ates a hell­ish land­scape of human decay. Our soci­ety is a caul­dron of oppres­sive mil­i­tary gov­er­nance, the result of a failed peace process,” he argues. We’re liv­ing with gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and incom­pe­tent politi­cians. We’re liv­ing with vio­lence, with death always close at hand.”

A good friend of mine, also from El Sal­vador, came pen­ni­less to the Unit­ed States in the 1990s. She saved mon­ey and paid coy­otes to bring her three chil­dren. Her daugh­ter was abused along the way and dis­ap­peared for months, until her moth­er and some friends traced her to the bor­der­lands and ulti­mate­ly brought her to the Unit­ed States. Such things have become a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can sto­ry. But Martínez makes clear that this, actu­al­ly, is a transna­tion­al ordeal, point­ing to the degree to which Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and the Unit­ed States are tied at the neck. Our dis­in­ter­est in the whole sit­u­a­tion is a form of collaboration. 

Ilan Sta­vans is Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor of human­i­ties, Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. He is the prize-win­ning author of numer­ous books, includ­ing On Bor­rowed Words: A Mem­oir of Lan­guage. Pro­fes­sor Sta­vans is the recip­i­ent of a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and Lati­no Lit­er­a­ture Prize. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Nation­al Pub­lic Radio and hosts NEPR’s pod­cast In Con­trast.” He is also pub­lish­er of Rest­less Books.
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