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  • Migrants scuffle with Mexican riot police at their annual human rights protest April 15, 2015. The writing on the cross reads "Enough of migrant

    Migrants scuffle with Mexican riot police at their annual human rights protest April 15, 2015. The writing on the cross reads "Enough of migrant's blood." | Photo: Reuters

Óscar Martínez's new book "A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America" takes the reader into the murderous cauldron of narco-capitalism.

The U.S.-driven war on drugs has been ineffective and counterproductive, and in his new book “A History of Violence,” journalist Óscar Martínez shines a light on some of the more devastating consequences of this policy failure in his native El Salvador and surrounding Central American countries.   

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His previous work, the much-acclaimed “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” (2013) focused on the dangerous migrant trail of the huge numbers fleeing appalling conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and to a lesser extent, Nicaragua. In this latest work, the author goes some way in answering the question why these people are compelled to flee.

“I want you to understand what thousands of Central Americans are forced to live through,” writes Martínez, who goes on to present a portrait of “this terrifying little corner of the world” ravaged by war, economically ruined and now overrun by powerful and ultra-violent drug gangs.

“Everything that happens to us is tangled up with the United States,” explains Martínez.

Prior to 1980, the rate of migration from Central America to the U.S. was very small. Then a series of internecine wars in the region – exasperated by “certain American politicians who tried to settle the Cold War in this small part of the world” – lead to the first massive wave of fleeing refugees. The Reagan administration sent millions in military aid to prop up deeply unpopular and repressive governments against left-wing insurgencies and in the process, devastated local economies and structures of society.

The levels of violence subsided in the 1990s with the onset of protracted peace processes, but a new threat engulfed the northern triangle of Central America as international drug cartels moved in to secure transshipment routes. Within a couple of decades, the region went from Cold War theater to a corridor for narco-trafficking, with 90 percent of cocaine consumed in the U.S. passing through the region.

The impact of the passage of illicit drugs – about 850 tons a year, reports Martínez – through these impoverished nations has been devastating. With massive profits to be made by independent contractors in securing the transport of the goods, local criminal groups, with the connivance of government and judicial elements, fight it out between themselves to secure the illicit routes.

It is all about profit, and the local narco’s business in Central America is to push consignments north to the Mexican border, where Mexican cartels will take over. A kilo of cocaine in Nicaragua, Martínez reports, “is worth $6,000; in El Salvador that same kilo is worth $11,000, in Guatemala is goes up to $12,000, and then in Chiapas (southern Mexico) it’s at $15,000 and by the time it gets to Matamoros (on the U.S.-Mexico border) it is already up to $20,000.” At each hub along the route, big profits can be made, and thus, control of the territory is viciously contested. The victor is most likely the best-armed, most brutal competitor.

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It is a devil’s concoction as huge multinational Colombian and Mexican cartels intersect with ferocious local gangs known as Maras – imported from Los Angeles in the ‘90s – and the already established criminal fraternity – smugglers, traffickers, drug dealers, and a wide range of crooked cops, judges and politicians. As Martínez shows, the legal system is utterly unable to cope with the enormity of the problem, and the medieval-like prison system is nothing more than an overflowing academy for developing more ruthless gang-bangers to perpetuate the violence. 

Incredibly, the current level of violence in the region – in most part generated by the narco-trade and its spinoffs – at times exceeds that of war time. For instance, during the Civil War in El Salvador, the daily death rate reached 16, while during September 2015, the author reports, the murder rate of 23 each day.

It is a perfect storm of impoverished post-war states, overseen by corrupt governments and judiciary, teeming with criminal organizations and street gangs all battling it out for a slice of the lucrative U.S. drug trade.

Into this murderous cauldron of narco-capitalism steps the fearless Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez with a mission to uncover the truth and expose the culprits. He bravely goes to the source of the stories, speaks to the people on the ground, and in the process, upsets both ruthless criminals and corrupt authorities.   

Frontline Reporting

“A History of Violence” presents 14 overlapping journalistic pieces that take the reporter into the murky depths of the drug trade, the cartels, the gangs and linked industries like human trafficking. He visits police precincts, jungle outposts, urban prisons and squatter camps.

He meets a whistle-blowing city official in a fast food chicken joint, and a retired human trafficker on his ranch. He interviews a woman who was sold as a sex slave and a man who was kidnapped and forced to act as a mule for drug consignments over the U.S. border. He peers down an abandoned shaft full of corpses that will never be excavated. He is there to witness a community of incredibly poor Salvadorans driven out of their humble houses by marauding Mara gangs. And he is there when the police official comes along, not to protect the citizens from the attack, but to tell them to get down on their knees and pray.

A History of Violence constantly takes the reader to the most abject and poignant places to meet sometimes decent, sometimes vile characters.

One recurring character is a hardcore gangster called The Hollywood Kid – with a reputed 54 murders under his belt – who has turned state witness and is in a witness protection program of sorts. The Salvadoran police, without a budget to sustain the informer, consign him to a rural outpost, locked up and starving in a sweltering room above the septic tank.

It is a tale of a death foretold. Martínez is there at the grim end. The investigative reporter writes with typical pathos as he relates the proceedings around the funeral.  

“The wake was modest. About thirty people, friends of The Hollywood Kid’s mother sang evangelical hymns ... [She] sat slumped and defeated in a plastic chair next to the coffin. She didn’t cry. It wasn’t a first for her. In 2007 the Maras had killed her other son, Cheje … The Hollywood Kid’s widow was breast-feeding in the corner.”

Martínez constantly allows the reader these kinds of intimate glimpses into the protagonist’s lives. The Hollywood Kid was a murderous gangster, but he was some mother’s son. He grew up, as his bereft son will, imagining a different life.

Righteous Indignation

“A History of Violence” is not simply about storytelling, and despite the gruesome subject matter, is certainly not sensationalist journalism.  

Óscar Martínez is a passionately engaged reporter who goes under the surface to get to the truth. See how he fiercely divides the book into three sections – Emptiness (or the absence or disinterest of the state); Madness (what is festering in the emptiness); and Fleeing (the only option for many desperate people).

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Martínez is incensed by the action (or inaction) of the powers that be and the abysmal failure of drugs policy. “I think that the model of combatting drugs is absolutely absurd,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s already been shown that prohibition is ridiculous. It’s already shown that criminalization is a loss for the state.”

He takes sides – with the dispossessed, the powerless, the victims of the wanton violence and the multitudes forced to flee in order to stay alive.

And with his colleagues at El Faro, the groundbreaking investigative Central American online magazine based in El Salvador, he names names, and unsettles the cabal of people getting rich from all this human misery.  

“I continue to believe that the journalism that I do, the journalism that we do at El Faro,” he says, “makes life a little more difficult for a few bastards.”

Ramor Ryan is author of "Zapatista Spring" (AK Press 2011) and "Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile" (AK Press 2006).

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