Narco-State of Mind

This review first appeared on Latino Rebels.

The work of a good journalist is marked by the number of death threats he or she receives. This is particularly true in Mexico and the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — where at least 60 journalists have been killed in the last five years. It isn’t merely gangs and cartels the periodistas must worry about; oftentimes they’re followed by U.S.-trained soldiers, police officers, and private security personnel. Sometimes they’re on the run from all five.

As a Salvadoran journalist living and working in this blood-soaked region of the world, Óscar Martínez knows the dangers attending his profession. After he and a couple colleagues published an exposé for El Salvador’s renowned El Faro last July (with the unequivocating headline “The police massacre at San Blas farm“), the newspaper received numerous promises of death directed at Martínez and his co-authors. A veteran of such threats, and perhaps heeding the old admonition about the boundary between courage and foolishness, Martínez left the capital city the day before the piece ran. Better safe than dead — there’s no sorry in Central America.

Many readers should recognize Martínez as the author of the 2011 book Los migrantes que no importan, which described the perilous route northward through Mexico undertaken by Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty. (Verso Books published an English translation by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington, The Beast, in 2013.) He’s also known as the director of Sala Negra — basically El Faro‘s version of the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight Team — which, since launching in 2010, has delved into the murky abyss of Central America’s narco-states. Sala Negra has uncovered a monstrous web of collusion between governments, businesses, oligarchic families, street gangs and drug cartels, at all levels — from lookouts (“flaggers”), traffic cops, border guards and small-town mayors, to the “ranfla libre” (street leaders), police directors, and maybe (definitely) a few attorneys general.

Martínez latest book, A History of Violence (also published by Verso and translated by Ugaz and Washington), provides a sampling of the journalist’s work while highlighting several threads of that web. Presented in three parts, the book focuses on the main actors in present-day Central America: the state, the narcos and mareros, and everyone else — or, as they’re ominously dubbed in the prison system, “civilians.” No place is dangerous enough to quell Martínez’s hunger for the truth, as the intrepid newshound sniffs around in occupied prisons, grim police stations, hellish whorehouses, desolate crack dens, isolated ranches and battered barrios, all the locales omitted from the tourism brochures. To understand how corruption operates in Central America, Martínez goes to where it operates.

Besides being a damn good journalist, Martínez is also a damn good writer. Stylistically, his work falls somewhere between the documentarist Studs Terkel and the madcap Hunter S. Thompson, notwithstanding the obvious nods to Galeano sprinkled throughout the book. (You can also throw Heller into the mix as well, since everything that happens in Central America inevitably involves a catch-22.) Still, there’s something undeniably gonzo about Martínez’s approach to telling the truth as he finds it, forgoing the stuffy, airbrushed decorum of the evening news shows. And the book’s subtitle, Living and Dying in Central America, brings to mind Thompson’s seminal account, being a mere two substitutions away from direct mimicry. Plus, for his shear bravery, Martínez strikes as intimidating a figure as the gang members he interviews. Anyone who’s done half of what he has must have a death wish. Or it could be that, in a place as wild as Central America, no one can be deemed truly crazy.

But the circus Martínez explores and the almost whimsical way in which his sentences parade across the page belie the grave reality that many of the characters he interacts with are deadly. Some of the funniest lines in the book are delivered by its most homicidal names on the dramatis personae. Then again, the absolutely absurd is best portrayed absurdly. When Martínez writes, for example, about a years-long attempt to recover bodies dumped at the bottom of a well, the tautology of his prose mirrors the circular logic of justice in his home country:

At the bottom of the well there are bodies. Maybe ten, maybe twelve, maybe as many as twenty. Definitely there are at least four. Entering into the small city of Turín, in western El Salvador, if you continue on the dirt road, cross over the train tracks, pass by the mud house and keep going through the cornfield, you’ll come to the well. At the bottom of the well there are bodies.

Martínez recaps the efforts made by Israel Ticas, the country’s sole forensic investigator, which are constantly thwarted by unhelpful — and at times downright obstructionist — government agencies. In the end, the story and its telling end just as they began: “next to the tree is the well. At the bottom of the well there are bodies. This is all we know.”

It’s impossible to discuss the vicious absurdity of Central America without summoning the term magic realism, and far be if from me to avoid the words unnecessarily. How can I when Martínez encounters El Niño Hollywood, who admits to decapitating one of his victims after shooting him because, as El Niño puts it, “they said he was a witch”? Then there’s the sex trafficker who explains how he was forced to work for his higher-ups out of fear of the supernatural:

We know that spells and witchcraft exist! That woman [who works for the boss], that’s how she would work. They worshipped this thing called Saint Simón. … When people left and didn’t want to come back, she would use these things to make them come back.

A vibrant heritage of Latin American literature heavily influences Martínez’s work. The first part of the book begins by mentioning “the nobodies,” the citizens forsaken by their governments and cast to the mercy of the narcos. Readers cannot come across these opening lines without hearing Galeano (“The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way”). It’s equally difficult to avoid mentioning Gabo when Martínez titles one of his articles “El Niño Hollywood’s Death Foretold,” which begins as arrestingly as the earlier masterpiece: “Since 2009 Miguel Ángel Tobar knew that he was going to be murdered.” The story of La Democracia, a border town in western Guatemala, offers a tidy metaphor for the region as a whole, as the Guatemalan government, due to a mixture of corruption and lack of resources, has largely abandoned La Democracia; today the town is overrun with narcos, making it off limits to journalists and other “civilians.” The variety of literary techniques and homages in this book could be the topic of a separate essay.

Nevertheless, there’s no getting around what this book means to region — to its history, to its current crises, to its politics, to its consciousness. I came to this book as the son of a Honduran immigrant and, what’s more, as a Chicagoan, which means I know a thing or two about street violence, government corruption and prohibition. The average Chicagoan could give a lecture on what happens when the state criminalizes a product in high demand, just as most Hondurans could give a primer on poverty and impunity. Partly aquí and partly allá, a Honduran Chicagoan knows there’s little separating the Outfit and the North Side Gang of yesterday and today’s Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. There’s really no difference between former Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson and Alexander Ardón, the former mayor of El Paraíso, or the countless other alcaldes currently greasing the wheels of corruption across the isthmus.

Violence is only as rampant and horrific as the system allows. As Martínez makes clear in his book, the rise of the narco-states in Central America came about not despite government efforts but thanks to them. When the state pulls out of Petén and Izabal in Guatemala, Ahuachapán and Chalatenango in El Salvador, or Copán and Olancho in Honduras, it allows other armed groups to have their way with the area and its people. (One of the many territories Martínez points to is Alta Verapaz in northern Guatemala, where state presence was so nonexistent that Los Zetas took control of a state-owned runway, using it to transport materials and even hold monster truck rallies.) When the indigenous campesinos of Guatemala discover they’re the targets of a government campaign designed to fool Washington into believing the state is doing something to root out lawlessness, they know justice isn’t a right but a privilege: one not granted to people like them. (“To quote the famous Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero,” Martínez writes, “the laws of Petén are like snakes—they only bite those who walk barefoot.”) When San Salvadorans read that a coyote convicted of selling his fellow human beings will serve less time in prison than a pickpocket, they realize the law is upside down and inside out. When the “civilians” of Honduras learn (though it’s been an open secret) that the country’s anti-drug czar was assassinated by the National Police, they’re forced to accept that the police are there to protect and serve a vast criminal empire.

For his part, Martínez suffers no delusions that his book holds an antidote to the travesties of justice and democracy playing out in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “There’s nothing I can suggest that will prevent women being raped on the Mexican migrant trails tomorrow,” he writes in his preface:

Nor is there anything I can do so that the young Salvadoran boy fleeing his country for yours turns around. I can’t make him go back. I definitely can’t bring safety or dignity to the place he has abandoned. 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. … Knowing is what moves the waves.

The knowledge Martínez offers is a study of the weeds that grew from concrete. It isn’t merely about the narcos and mareros, because, if I’m being honest, I have no qualms with the drug producing, smuggling and selling side of what they do. The state has no more right to criminalize marijuana, cocaine or heroin than it does alcohol or cigarettes. What a mature adult does to himself in the privacy of his home should be of no concern to anyone else. But it’s what the narcos and mareros do to secure their profits — the killings, the beatings, the kidnappings, the rapes, the bribes, the extortion — that put them in the wrong.

Yet, that they can commit any of those acts is largely due to weakness and corruption of the regional governments, as well as the wealth and power of the United States acting as puppet master. As soon as states begin coordinating with criminals, everything is permissible, since state agency become reluctant to go after their accomplices for fear of revealing the collaboration (cue Walter Scott). The state ties its hands with its own culpability, and bright-eyed neophytes are quickly inculcated with graft. “It’s hard to be a cop here,” an officer from Xela tells Martínez. “You’re corrupt as soon as they see you.” Or, as a former mayor from Copán explains, “These lords who rule the border aren’t alone. Behind them are the men in suits that govern the country.” Nothing (not even the weekly massacre) happens without at least the tacit approval of the state and its North American patrón.

While it’s an evocative title (also borrowed from an earlier work), A History of Violence is scarcely about history or violence. It’s about how everyday people are forced to survive under states that have ditched their duty to govern and instead have teamed up with criminals using whole countries and everyone in them as personal property. It’s an odyssey set in Narcolandia, a collection of Dantean accounts from the pit of hell, reportage from Pandaemonium. We know the Devil is hideous, but Martínez has dared close enough to the Beast to paint its grotesque features.

At its core, the book is about why hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans have fled their homelands, braved treacherous routes northward stalked by human predators of various species, swam across rivers, clung to rusty metal monsters, trekked across infernal moonscapes, and risked capture and detention in cold, crowd prisons: where families are kept broken, and mothers and daughters are fondled by corporate minions. The sea of unaccompanied children flooding the U.S.-Mexico border each year are more than mere migrants; they’re refugees. They don’t want to leave their homes and come to the United States, but they do it out of necessity and for better opportunities. Not the kind of opportunities for which a recent college graduate from London might travel to the States, but simply the opportunity to live without the fear that masked men may one day break down your door and… Truth is, nearly every Central American faces the distinct possibility that their actual lives may one day, without warning, become far worse than their darkest terrors. This is why they come here, and why they’ll continue to come here.

As for Martínez, I hope and suspect he’ll continue risking his neck so that the rest of us know at least a sliver of what it’s like to live and die in Central America. That said, Martínez will undoubtedly remain the target of so many sinister promises against him, his family, his friends, his colleagues, his neighbors, and anyone else he may remotely care for. I don’t envy him in the least, but reserve for him the most profound respect and admiration. He wears the threats against his life as badges of honor, telling one of his translators recently, “Journalism that doesn’t piss somebody off is probably shitty journalism.” Martínez’s work is the opposite of “shitty.” His is gritty journalism.