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Explaining El Salvador’s Violence

The grisly violence in El Salvador has social and political origins. It is neither inevitable nor insuperable.

El Salvador (Flickr)

In recent years, the small Central American nation of El Salvador has become synonymous in the United States with gangs. One organization in particular, MS-13, has captured popular imagination, usually in racist media caricature. This is thanks in no small part to Donald Trump’s bigoted fearmongering. But well before Trump, the US government was at work fomenting the conditions for the gang’s rise and inflating its international profile.

Jimmy Carter ignored Archbishop Oscar Romero’s plaintive request to sever aid to the Salvadoran military dictatorship in 1980, shortly before Romero’s assassination by US-trained death squads. Ronald Reagan escalated and sustained the bloody civil war that ensued, in which US-backed security forces were responsible for over 85 percent of the seventy thousand deaths and ten thousand disappearances suffered during the twelve-year conflict with the leftist insurgency. It was the Clinton administration that escalated the incarceration and deportation of Salvadoran refugees, many of whom adapted to local gang culture in working-class California neighborhoods and prisons, and approved the draconian 1996 immigration reforms that created the foundations for today’s mass deportation machine.

Bush Jr signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which further subordinated the region’s labor and natural resources to the demands of US capital, ravaging local economies and spurring US-bound migration beyond even wartime levels. And in 2012, the Obama administration designated MS-13 an international criminal organization on par with the Italian Camorra, Mexico’s Zetas, or the Japanese Yakuza, all while accelerating the detention and deportation of migrants to unprecedented levels.

Decades of bipartisan US security aid fueled El Salvador’s repressive zero-tolerance policing, which radicalized and fortified incipient gang organizations. All this, to say nothing of the preceding century of imperial pillage, intervention, and exploitation, produced a predictably monstrous social formation.

With MS-13 in the spotlight, a flurry of new English-language publications seek to shed light on the gang for a US audience. Few are better positioned to do so than the investigative journalists from the Salvadoran digital magazine El Faro, who gained international acclaim for their reporting on gangs and government corruption. In a recent book, The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman, celebrated El Faro contributors and brothers Óscar and Juan José D’Aubuisson Martínez — nephews of Roberto D’Aubuisson, the notorious death squad leader and founder of the far-right ARENA party — chronicle the devastating story of a notorious MS-13 hitman turned police informant, providing at the same time a detailed history of the gang’s origins and rise within a broader international context.

The Hollywood Kid is a gripping read, thoroughly researched and dramatically conveyed. But the book also reproduces racialized and gendered constructs common to the mainstream discourse on violence and crime in El Salvador. Above all, despite recourse to historical antecedents, the book perpetuates the notion of Salvadoran violence as inevitable, innate, and insuperable.

The Life and Death of a Hitman

The book recounts the life and death of Miguel Ángel Tobar, alias el niño de Hollywood, who gained notoriety within MS-13 before becoming a protected state witness. It begins with his hurried and thoroughly undignified funeral, beset by hostile local gang members, then hopscotches through time with miserable anecdotes from Tobar’s biography, interspersed with historical overviews of the social conflicts that led to the genocidal massacre of 1932, the civil war of 1980–1992, and the UN-negotiated Peace Accords that demilitarized the state and established the fragile and fraught liberal institutions like the National Civil Police now charged with repressing the gangs

The Martínez brothers review the origins of El Salvador’s monocrop export economy, first driven by indigo under Spanish colonization, then coffee, and the sequences of primitive accumulation that drove indigenous inhabitants from their mountainous communal lands and into the hands of the emergent landowning oligarchy. They recount the failed 1932 communist and indigenous uprising in western El Salvador, positioning Tobar as heir to that legacy of repression and bloodshed.

Tobar was born in 1984 to a family of immiserated peons who labored on the large coffee plantations near the Guatemalan border. The authors describe his first attempt at murder when, at the age of eleven, he tried to kill the hacienda foreman who Tobar’s alcoholic father had authorized to regularly rape his sister. A few years later, in the mid-1990s, he would be recruited into a local MS clique led by a deported former national guardsman, alias “Chepe Furia,” who transcended the usual turf disputes to run a powerful organized crime syndicate that dominated western El Salvador.

The Martínez brothers identify Ronald Reagan as an unsuspecting “godfather” of MS-13. They describe early refugees displaced by the civil war as caught between the growing conflagration in El Salvador and the War on Drugs in California. For the nascent Salvadoran gangsters, “Reagan gave them everything they needed to grow. He ensured a constant flow of new members from Central America and at the same time weakened their biggest enemies in California.”

Through interviews with anonymous scattered survivors of those early days, the book provides an overview of the complex milieu in which recent migrants flooded into the veteran Barrio 18 gang while others formed their own groups. Initial MS formations were rooted in metal, marijuana, and satanism. But the original Mara Salvatrucha Stoners would eventually join the Sureño system of Southern California Chicano gangs, governed by the Mexican Mafia, abandoning their rocker identity for the predominant cholo style and tacking a requisite “13” onto their title.

At the intersection of the consolidating mass incarceration regime and the emergent machinery of mass deportation, working-class young Salvadoran refugees were increasingly shuttled into US prisons and deported. They were expelled to a society ravaged by recent armed conflict, the root causes of which remained largely unresolved, and dramatic neoliberal restructuring.

Extremism flourishes in these wretched conditions. Two of the principal social institutions that structure daily life for working-class slums and poor rural enclaves in postwar El Salvador are the gangs and fundamentalist Christian evangelical churches: “Both of them came from the United States, and after they arrived their destinies would be interlaced forever. [. . .] Since the early ’90s both groups saw themselves as reigning over the margins, as giving direction — though by very different means — to the lives of those neighborhoods and villages where the state represents nothing but a distant threat.”

In the swelling ranks of El Salvador’s impoverished unemployed postwar youth, deportees found eager participants for the cliques that would soon become nodes in an international network. The gangs, the Martínez brothers note, have a different ethos than that of, say, extravagant Mexican narcos: “The life of gang soldiers didn’t change much after they earned their letters. It was, and is, a mafia, but a mafia of the poor.” Despite its nationwide extortion system, “the MS-13 economy is barely a subsistence economy” for its tens of thousands of participants.

It was in prison, however, that these street organizations grew into mature criminal enterprises. The authors offer data that points to a remarkably under-examined process: the US export of mass incarceration throughout the region. They note that US-backed anti-gang policing in El Salvador saw the prison population nearly double between 2000–6. In fact, today El Salvador ranks second in the world to the United States for incarceration rates, jailing an astonishing 604 people per 100,000 inhabitants.

The authors claim that “one of the greatest failures of the Salvadoran government was handing the prisons over to the gangs.” They describe the brutal violence between rival groups that drove the government to segregate the burgeoning prison population in the early 2000s, allowing the gangs to consolidate leadership structures nationally.

State actors further contributed to the sophistication of gang leadership during the first administration of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the party of the former leftist insurgency, when members of the security cabinet secretly helped negotiate a truce between the warring parties. The brokers helped facilitate communications to ensure agreements with imprisoned leaders could take effect on the outside, with predictable consequences once the truce collapsed.

Despite the notable reduction in homicides achieved, the strategy — revealed in 2012 by El Faro’s reporting — was met with broad public repudiation: “The government, faced with mass rejection of its peace policy, prioritized raising its popularity over lowering the homicide rate.” The ensuing surge in murders, which peaked in 2015 and 2016, was a reaction from the betrayed gangs. The state’s repressive response to the targeting of public security forces escalated the violence, with US-trained troops forming clandestine extermination groups, essentially reviving wartime paramilitary death squads.

The Hollywood Kid, for his part, managed to evade prison. After years as a loyal foot soldier and dozens of murders to his name, a bloody series of betrayals left Tobar isolated and endangered. In 2010, he flipped, agreeing to testify against Chepe Furia and his underlings.

Tobar spent four years as a protected witness, complementing his meager state rations by selling marijuana that he grew outside the shack on police grounds where he lived with his partner and daughter and, when that failed, shaking down passing cars for spare change. This was where the authors conducted most of their interviews with the Hollywood Kid, restless, undernourished, and stoned.

The Salvadoran state’s capacity to protect its informants is “pathetically inadequate,” and Tobar quickly became the target of gang assassination attempts and threats from crooked cops. Tobar’s testimony brought down an entire MS clique, but, under pressure, he denied his prior implication of two officers in a key homicide. Tobar abandoned his precarious police protection in 2014. He was killed not long after, shot by his former homies after venturing out of hiding to register the birth of his infant daughter at city hall.

No Way Out

The Hollywood Kid is an illuminating glimpse into the workings of a notoriously inaccessible mass criminal enterprise, as well as the failures of the strategies deployed to contain it. Still, its shortcomings are equally revealing.

The gender imbalance among the characters and informants featured in the book is too stark to be ignored. Not until Chapter Six, under a subheading titled “Women,” do the authors half-heartedly recognize this lapse, writing: “When you talk about gangs, you talk about men. This book is no exception. Our history of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 is mainly protagonized by men because more of them tell the stories and explain how the gangs function.” To us, they might have added. This tepid justification, evidently an afterthought, is immediately undermined by the authors themselves in a subsequent paragraph, who note that “there are more women than men in the wider gang structures of El Salvador.”

The women that do appear in the story are mostly downward gazing, furtive figures in the background. Wives making coffee, sisters being raped. Then there’s the vile depiction of Tobar’s mother “rotting” from a venereal disease, suffering from what the authors describe as “the pain in her innards, from which the kid spilled out thirty years ago.” Misogyny, so pervasive in the social relations that structure Salvadoran gangs, pervades these pages as well.

When it comes to Tobar, the authors often adopt the objectifying, external gaze of a nineteenth-century colonial anthropologist examining a lesser species. “There’s something animal about him. About his essence,” they write. This uncomfortable, dehumanizing language of an “animal, predatory essence” recurs throughout the text, naturalizing Tobar’s violent acts and tacitly associating them with his presumed indigenous ancestry. Indeed, in highlighting the pre-Hispanic rituals that imbue contemporary Catholic practice in rural El Salvador, the authors insinuate that ritual bloodshed, human sacrifice even, is some kind of latent impulse that links savage gang violence with a mystified cultural, even racial, heritage.

By essentializing Tobar, the authors essentialize Salvadoran violence. They suggest that El Salvador is trapped in “the cycle of violence, something that will never end because it has no way out.” That’s the final lesson of the book: from bloody pre-Hispanic sacrificial rituals, to the 1932 genocide, to the civil war, and now the gangs, El Salvador is preternaturally condemned to carnage.

In their effort to situate Tobar as the product of historical circumstances — “a long series of violent acts” — the authors resort to tired tropes. The Hollywood Kid renders Salvadoran gang violence into a grotesque, exotic spectacle for a foreign audience. And the analysis, in its excess, borders on nihilism. “The Kid’s story has one consistent thread: everything turns out badly.” El Salvador is portrayed as “a country that, after pitifully trying to hide its face, has shown what it truly is: nothing but war, repression, and hatred.” Far from insightful, the message is easy, and it’s nothing new.

Salvadoran scholar and artist Beatriz Cortez put it best. In a withering 2014 critique of Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, she writes: “I came to accept that this work did not portray our country, but rather it repeated the official colonialist, racist, globalized, imperialist portrait of Central America. . . . Both in his statements and the form in which time and again he has portrayed the Central American literary universe, he constructs it as other, as an atavistically violent world, an illiterate world, against art and literature, ignorant, obtuse, lacking intelligence.” Cortez’s appraisal of Castellanos Moya resonates here as well.

The hopeless racialized and gendered depiction of Salvadoran violence in The Hollywood Kid sells, especially to a US public. But the book, despite its deft command of history and wealth of information, does much to mystify the social conflict it purports to explain. For US readers committed to repairing the damages wrought by imperialism in the region, and Central Americans organizing for peace, justice, and self-determination, such representations are of little use, and may in fact work against our struggles.