A History of Violence

A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America by Óscar Martínez (Verso, March 2016)

Introduced by Oliver Balch


In March 2016 on an unremarkable weekday night, armed men broke into Berta Cáceres’ house in the small Honduran town of La Esperanza. Minutes later, the mother of four was dead. A bungled burglary, police claimed.

So far, so ordinary. Last year, Honduras averaged about 85.5 homicides per 100,000 people. In the murder stakes, it’s second only to its Central American neighbour El Salvador, at an estimated 104 per 100,000. In the UK, the average is 1.

What makes Cáceres’ death stand out was its tragic predictability. Over the years, this courageous and out-spoken environmental activist has received multiple death threats. The police assigned her protection. Her struggle was known around the world. And still she was murdered.

Reports of her killing made international news and prompted justified anger from all quarters. For once, the global media turned its gaze on this woefully under-reported corner of the globe. With uncharacteristic haste, the Honduran government even promised justice. Investigations, as they say, remain on-going.

For Óscar Martínez, a native of El Salvador, the incident must sound all too familiar. An award-winning investigative journalist, he has dedicated himself to bringing to light the inner workings of Central America’s crime-filled underbelly. His in-depth dispatches appear regularly on the independent online news site El Faro, an example of free and fearless reporting at its very best.

A History of Violence collates the latest of Martínez’s journalistic endeavours. The fourteen separate accounts are unremittingly grim and unquestionably important. As Martínez spells out, Central America is currently experiencing an “epidemic of violence”, the bloody effects of which touch everyone, rich or poor (but especially the poor).

Readers are left in little doubt where responsibility lies: the region’s gangs. Originating in California, these criminal networks arrived in Central America in the 1990s after US authorities decided to dump 4,000 gang members with criminal records back in their home countries.

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Today, the results of this bone-headed idea are all too clear. That initial group of tattoo-branded mobsters has grown to around 60,000 in El Salvador alone. Lynchpins in the cross-border drugs trade, these gangs have fingers in almost every criminal pie. Their names – Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, Mirada Lokotes 13, and, most recently, Mexico-based Los Zetas – are “what we call our fear”, as Martínez puts it.

Take El Niño Hollywood. As with Cáceres, his death was foretold. Unlike her, however, there is little redemptive about his story. An ex-gang member turned state witness, thirty-something El Niño worked as an assassin for the Mara Salvatrucha. In the course of his day job, he claims to have “wasted” more than fifty people. He gained his nickname (‘niño’ means ‘child’ in Spanish) after remarking how much the human heart resembled a baby in a womb. The comment came as he wrenched the pulsating organ from one of his victim’s chests. His own time would come. 

In some way or other, such visceral brutality infects every story in this book. There are scenes that, once read, are difficult to forget. I’m thinking of the group of trafficked sex slaves forced to stand in a circle and watch two men beat a defenceless woman to death. Or the gang member who told investigators that his wife’s decapitated corpse could be identified by the knife implanted in her vagina. The fact that the perpetrators frequently go by childish-sounding monikers – Barney, Old Bear, The Magnificents – makes their inhuman actions all the more chilling.

Arguably, however, this chronicle of violence is at its most powerful when the violence lurks in the shadows. The gang member who tails Martínez at a funeral, for instance. El Niño’s insistence that the car engine be kept running as he’s being interviewed. The threats to family members that keep kidnap victims from attempting escape. It’s here where the reader gets a sense of what it’s like to live under violence’s constant presence.     
If Martínez’s goal in this book is to shock us out of indifference to Central America’s plight then he achieves his aim with gut-wrenching aplomb. The War on Drugs, just like the War on Terror, is a messy, quagmire-ish conflict that leaves lives wrecked and entire nations traumatised. The collateral of North America and Europe’s drug habit is there in the region’s packed prisons and bursting morgues, its killing and its corruption. This blood, Martínez wishes us to know, is on our hands too.

The book carries a second message. “I want you to understand what thousands of Central Americans are forced to live through,” Martínez writes. “Then you can understand why they keep coming.” In a US election year, it’s a timely message. That said, policy makers won’t find any neatly-packaged solutions here. Martínez’s skill lies not in big picture strategy, but in making painfully vivid what we’d rather ignore.

Regrettably, attempts to theorise violence are scant as well. Gang members kill, rape and torture. Yes, it’s their modus operandi. But why cudgel your opponent with a baseball bat? Why dismember your victims before murdering them? Explaining it away as “animal violence” somehow feels simplistic. For a history of violence, to skate over the psychology of such acts seems remiss. As does the book’s failure to tackle the political and economic dimensions behind the region’s descent into violent sadism.

Where Martínez cannot be faulted, however, is in the dogged, detailed nature of his reporting. He follows every lead and talks to every possible informant: detectives, politicians, ex-cons, protected witnesses, murder suspects, trafficking victims, dodgy cops. If they’ll talk, he’ll listen, regardless of their crimes.

In one of the best chapters, he follows El Salvador’s sole forensic investigator as he leads a fruitless search to exhume a pile of bodies from a well. No-one knows how many dead are down there. And a lack of machinery means the investigator never finds out. “That’s who we are as a country,” Martínez reflects. “A man with a pick and shovel trying to dig up our dead.” The situation feels intractable: no-one can ever dig deep enough.

In an environment where asking awkward questions can easily lead to a bullet in the back, such dedication takes guts. Martínez, as even his enemies must concede, has cojones. What he doesn’t have, however, is an attentive editor. Sadly, the text is plagued with repetition and sloppy prose, debilities that weaken its overall impact and reduce its readability. 

Yet how Martínez writes is ultimately less important than what he writes. Gang life in Central America is crude and brutal. Martínez is merely saying it how it is – and that’s no mean feat.

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Oliver Balch is a journalist with a specialism in Latin America. He is also the author of Viva South America! (Faber & Faber, 2008)

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