Born in Los Angeles, MS-13 came to terrorise El Salvador
MS-13. By Steven Dudley.Hanover Square Press; 352 pages; $28.99. To be published in Britain by Bonnier Books in July 2021; £8.99.
The Hollywood Kid. By Óscar Martínez and Juan José Martínez. Translated by John Washington and Daniela Maria Ugaz.Verso; 320 pages; $26.95 and £16.99.
THE PRESIDENT of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has been “very tough” on the street gang MS-13—or so said Donald Trump last year. Murders have indeed fallen 80% since 2015, when El Salvador was the most violent country in the world (apart from conflict zones such as Syria). Mr Bukele attributes the improvement to a crackdown on MS-13 and its rival, Barrio 18. But prison logs and intelligence reports published on September 3rd by El Faro, a Salvadorean news site, suggest another explanation: that for 15 months Mr Bukele’s government has secretly negotiated with MS-13’s imprisoned leaders, granting perks in exchange for keeping murders down.
Mr Bukele denies the reports. If true, they make painfully clear something Salvadoreans already know: the streets belong to the gangs, not the government. Practically every city block in El Salvador (and much of Guatemala and Honduras) is extorted by one or both of the gangs. La renta is squeezed out of tortilla carts and telecoms firms alike, then split among tens of thousands of members. It doesn’t make them rich. Rather, their rivalry is itself their raison d’être. Deal or no deal with Mr Bukele, tread on enemy turf and you get killed.
How a group of metalheads in Los Angeles in the 1980s evolved into a gang that terrorises three countries is the subject of “MS-13” by Steven Dudley, founder of Insight Crime, a site that covers organised crime in Latin America. The story begins with El Salvador’s civil war, which between 1980 and 1992 left 75,000 people dead and over 1m displaced. Like the guns Ronald Reagan’s administration sent down for use against leftist guerrillas, the gang is an American export. Mara Salvatrucha (“Salva” for El Salvador, “trucha” for “savvy”) first referred to a group of refugees in Los Angeles with tastes for crack and heavy metal. When they took to wielding machetes, America started deporting them.
Back in El Salvador, MS-13 thrived on the same ingredients that drove the previous generation to take up arms (minus the ideology): poverty, impunity, a culture of violence, lots of young men and too few opportunities. Salvadoreans living under gang control call their teenage overlords los muchachos (“the boys”), a euphemism once used for the guerrillas. Acknowledging the parallel, Mr Dudley suggests that the term “insurgency” properly captures the gangs’ weaponry and political capital.
As with rebels of earlier decades, El Salvador’s response hardened the hoodlums. Consecutive presidents packed the prisons, but with virtually no rehabilitation they became gang training grounds. Then, in 2012, an ex-guerrilla forged a short-lived truce between gangs and the government that halved the murder rate but horrified elites and the American embassy (the mediator is now in jail). Still, it set a precedent. Deals continued in secret: support from MS-13 probably swayed the tight presidential election of 2014. Yet official policy reverted to all-out war against the gangs, fuelling a new exodus of migrants to the Mexican-American border, including numerous children. Mr Trump claimed, falsely, that many were gang members.
The best reporting on MS-13 is by local journalists, including El Faro, which has churned out cinematic dispatches from gang-torn barrios for more than a decade. A recent string of murders on Long Island led to a spate of stories in America, including a Pulitzer-winning series by ProPublica, a non-profit news outfit, which showed how Mr Trump’s immigration policies have inflamed gang tensions. But Mr Dudley’s book is uniquely comprehensive. Years of research have yielded a shrewd analysis of the structural forces that created the gang, which Mr Dudley calls “the bastard child that no one wants to acknowledge from an affair that most choose to ignore”.
Biting the bullet
His sources include police reports from murder trials, testimony from asylum cases and scores of interviews with current and former MS-13 members. Many, he observes, were just children when they evolved from “victims of circumstance, caught in a system that marginalises, vilifies and destroys them” into victimisers who destroy the lives of others. Scarcely a year separates the day one wins $35 in a breakdancing contest and the day he gets into a knife fight with Barrio 18 members.
Mr Dudley does not shy away from the violence—a brutal passage describes how gang members rape and murder women perceived to have slighted them—but nor does he sensationalise it. “MS-13 members were, to put it simply, not good criminals”, he writes. Their facial tattoos and lack of discipline made them easy targets for ambushes and wiretaps.
His book shares its subject’s transnational sprawl, jumping between countries and characters, sometimes confusingly. “The Hollywood Kid”, published in English last year, solves this problem by telling the gang’s story through a single anti-hero: an MS-13 hitman. Quickly readers learn of his 50-plus kills. “The Kid has euphemisms for everything,” write brothers Óscar Martínez and Juan José Martínez (a reporter for El Faro and an anthropologist, respectively). “If he kills someone and dumps him in a well, he’s sent him to get a drink. If he buries someone, dead or alive, in some field, he’s sent him to count stars.”
But they also see the childhood traumas that drove the Kid into the gang—such as the dark room into which his father’s boss at a coffee plantation disappeared with his 15-year-old sister—and the disillusion that made him try to leave it. His choice to become a government witness confined him to a precarious safe house, where the Martínez brothers interviewed him repeatedly. Behind-the-scenes details—the Kid’s tenderness toward his infant daughter, his openness, the permanent cloud of marijuana smoke—help humanise him. His life unspools through flashbacks and vivid prose that succeeds where Mr Dudley’s writing occasionally falls short. “Why do you want to tell my story?” the sicario asks. “Because we believe that your story, unfortunately, is more important than your life,” the authors answer sheepishly. When, predictably, the Kid was murdered by his own gang, they started writing.
“The Hollywood Kid” shows why thousands of adolescents who have never heard of AC/DC or set foot in America have had their lives shaped by MS-13, in turn shaping the trajectories of their countries. Mr Dudley takes on a trickier question: what to do about it? Programmes to peel away gang members and reintegrate them into society are “woefully underfunded and politically unpalatable”, he laments. There is little appetite in either America or El Salvador to dismantle the elements of “the monster” behind the carnage: hardline policing, mass incarceration and deportation, inadequate social services, economic inequality and political populism.
His subtitle is “The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang”. Double-dealing by Salvadorean politicians is a reminder that Central America suffers most. ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "The monster and the boys"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/09/26/born-in-los-angeles-ms-13-came-to-terrorise-el-salvador
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