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On Contact: Violence in Central America with Oscar Martinez

Chris Hedges discusses with journalist Oscar Martinez the culture of violence in Central America. Martinez’s most recent book is ‘A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America’. His first book ‘The Beast’ followed the harsh journey of Central American immigrants on the ‘Death Train’ (El tren de la muerte) to the United States.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss the culture of violence in Central America with the author and journalist Oscar Martinez.

OM: El Salvador, it's a country with not too much hope in the--I mean, in my--in my--in the mind of my compatriotas, of the people who live there.  And I think that that's one of the huge problems because we had a very violent war, as you know.  But I think that the worst lesson of El Salvador is that maybe the end of a war is not the beginning of peace. 

CH: Uh-hmm.

OM: That what happened to us.  We have a very violent peace.

CH: The Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.  The violence and crushing poverty see some 1000 people men, women, and children flee every day in desperation to the United States.  Large parts of El Salvador and Guatemala were left in ruins in the 1980s by the civil wars that saw the military carry out numerous atrocities and massacres.  Many families during and after the wars fled to the United States where impoverished young men and sometimes women were incorporated into urban gangs.  The United States some two decades ago summarily deported some 20,000 convicted Salvadoran criminals back to El Salvador.  These criminals many members of the gang MS-13 now rule urban slums in El Salvador along with villages and towns along drug routes to the United States.  In neighboring Honduras, the Obama State Department in 2009 backed the overthrow of the leftist President Manuel Zelaya.  This opened up more territory to the drug traffickers as members of the Honduran military and the drug cartels merged.  The IMF and World Bank along with the United States at the same time forced trade agreements on these nations along with mandated austerity programs which have decimated local food production, wiping out small farmers.  And to these disasters, the effects of climate change which have triggered devastating droughts, leading to crop failure and violent land disputes.  And you have whole sections of Central America that are barely livable.  Joining me in the studio to discuss this culture of violence is Oscar Martinez, author of "A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America."  Very courageous book.  You went places that I would've gone when I was your age and I won't go now.

OM: Nice to be here.  Thank you for the invitation.

CH: Let's begin.

OM: Okay.

CH: You open the book with a quote by the great Oscar Romero, the archbishop assassinated, "Violence will keep changing a name but violence will always remain as long as there's no change at the root from where all these horrible things are sprouting."  What do you see as the root of this violence that has gripped your country, gripped Honduras, and grips Guatemala?

OM: Well, I think that in El Salvador, what happened to us for years, I mean, the inequality in El Salvador is, for me, the root of all the violence that was [INDISTINCT] in El Salvador.  For example, you have a lot of people who have nothing and have people who can, I don't know, flight in or out, on a jet trip when they want.  And I think…

CH: And let me ask you--just interrupt.

OM: Yeah.

CH: Because as you know, I lived in El Salvador from '83 to '88 and covered the war.  And it was the social structure they used to call them the 10 Families who ran.

OM: Yeah.

CH: But when I got to El Salvador, an estimated 50% of the Salvadoran population was landless.  And they worked as itinerant day laborers on the coffee fincas, but that disparity, you don't see it in Nicaragua, for instance.  You don't even see it in Guatemala.  But that disparity in wealth where you had the uber-rich in terms of the oligarchic class and really the deep destitution of 50% of the country was--and it may still be the case, I don't know, was the worst in Central America.

OM: Yeah.  And it's still the case in El Salvador.  And it happened, for example with, I mean, during--in El Salvador, you can live in a bubble.  That's possible in El Salvador already.  I mean, there is--you know, it's a small country, small cities.  But for example, you can live very close to a neighborhood with gangs but do not feel the repercussion of live around a gun--a group…

CH: And let me just--let me just--that's probably because you have your own private security?

OM: Yeah, that's probably because you have a guard with a gun shot on the--on your door.  And for example, in the--you know, you--we was talking about Colonia Escalon…

CH: That's where…

OM: …when there…

CH: That's where I used to live, with the oligarchs when I covered the war.

OM: Yeah.  Okay.

CH: I'm sorry.

OM: I know.  No, no.  I know.  There is several correspondent that have to live here because the situation during the war was very dangerous for you.

CH: Right.

OM: So, for example, in Colonia Escalon, you have a La Zona Rosa which is a place of social life, social nocturnal life.  And then…

CH: I know it well.

OM: You know it well?

CH: It's where the FMLN assassinated the four Marines or…

OM: Yeah.  That's where…

CH: Having a coffee or something.

OM: That was when…

CH: in Zona Rosa, yeah.

OM: …a commando of guerrillas killed--how many--how many people they killed?

CH: Four.

OM: Four.

CH: There were four.

OM: Four Marines.

CH: Yeah.

OM: But very close from there, for example, you have a community who called Las Palomas, which is the center of the most important sub group clique of the 18th Street gang, for example, who rules a huge part of the country.  And the people who live in that kind of neighborhoods live under the rules of that government, of the government of 18th Street gang.  So, you can live in two El Salvadors with just one block of difference.  I mean, you just need to walk one block to be in El Salvador of the rich people in some places, and one block and you are in the--in a place totally controlled by gang members.  And I think that that's very frustrating for a lot of people.  And that's--El Salvador, it's a country with not too much hope in the--I mean, in my--in my--in the mind of my compatriotas, of the people who live there, and I think that that's one of the huge problems because we had a very violent war, as you know.  But I think that the worst lesson of El Salvador is that maybe the end of a war is not the beginning of peace.

CH: Uh-hmm.

OM: That's what happened to us.  We have a very violent peace.

CH: Let me just interject, as you know well, the Reagan administration when I was there was flooding the country with weapons and training, set-up training camps, because the Salvadoran Army when I got there was being pushed back, beaten by the FMLN rebels.  How much did that--I mean, the heavy infusion of the militarization of the country, the heavy infusion of military training and weapon systems into El Salvador, and then the war ends and essentially the United States walks away, as they did in Afghanistan.  How much did that contribute to now the rise of violence making El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world?

OM: I think that was one of the ingredients to create the violent society that we are today.  And I mean I don't just say that the administration, the government of the United States at that time do not found just an army, found assassin army.  I mean, the war against El Salvador started with the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero who now is a saint in the Catholic Church.

CH: Right.

OM: The next year, '81, the--one of the battalions of the army, the Battalion Atlacatl, which you know very well killed around 1,000 people.

CH: In El Mozote.

OM: In El Mozote.  So, the administration of United States, I always say that, found an army who do--who did that kind of things.

CH: But let me just interject…

OM: And they thought in the beginning…

CH: But it was even worse, Oscar, because you had three, the Treasury Police, the Hacienda Police, National Police all ran death squads.

OM: Yeah.

CH: And when I got to El Salvador, the death squads were killing between seven-hundred and a thousand people a month.  And they used to have toga that cater a curfew and I used to get up--I think it ended at 6:00 in the morning, now we got up and run.  And I would run by sometimes bodies lying on the street.  So, as--not just the violence perpetrated by a US-backed military and armed, but also these death squads that were murdering labor union leaders, students, and then I think, you know, one of the things that's important to note about the death squad killings, and I would say it's probably the majority of the killings, is that if you had a--if you had a watermelon cart on one side of the street and one had a watermelon cart on the other and you wanted to get rid of one, you'd go down and denounce him as a leftist and they'd come and--so there were a lot of vendetta killings had nothing to do with politics.

OM: Yeah.

CH: But it was this cultures and a lot of these people who were killed were tortured and brutally mutilated.  This was all came out of the war?

OM: Yeah, that happened.  And I mean that's the story of a lot of people in El Salvador.  The impunity, the--what you mentioned, you saw the circumstances who create a society so violent as the Salvadoran one.  For example the huge massacre during the war has not been trial ready.  I mean, there's no people in jail because of that.

CH: For El Mozote?

OM: For El Mozote.  For example, there is a trial right now who looks like a serious one let's see what happened.  It's happening in this small municipality of San Francisco Gotera.  In the…

CH: In Morazan?

OM: In La Union.

CH: Oh, La Union.  I'm sorry.

OM: So, let's see what happened.  But I think that that's why for me is so difficult at this time when I hear the debate about migrants, Salvadoran [INDISTINCT] American migrants here in United States.  For me it's very difficult to not think in what happened during the war.

CH: Right.

OM: Because I think that United States have a moral issue with the migration.  For example, if I do a very rough resuming.  I don't know how to say that word in English.  But if I do like a rough resuming, a simplification of the situation, there is a lot of people who fleeing from El Salvador during the war, as you know.

CH: Yes.

OM: Fleeing from those…

CH: But we had--just to interject.  We had thousands of people living in refugee camps in Honduras, UN-administered refugee camps in Honduras and Guatemala who were driven out because of the war.

OM: Yeah, yeah, the…

CH: And then many others went off to Mexico and the United States.

OM: And there's many other people who came here because there was like a social network around here from Mexican, El Salvadoran people living mostly in South of California.  When those people came here, very--a lot of those people were boys who fought during the war.

CH: Right.

OM: Come here and found a very hostile environment.  I mean, there was 64 gangs in--just in south of California.

CH: And this was--this is, I think what you write in the book, but they got there and they were preyed upon by established gangs in these depressed urban centers and you argue that is what caused them to form their own gangs.

OM: Yeah, that's what happened.  In fact in--for example in San Fernando Valley, they created one of the most important and violent cliques who still remain to these days, Fulton Loco Salvatrucha.  But what for me is curious is that when Unite--when the administration of United States, at the end of the '90s, realized that MS-13 can be a very dangerous gang, deport 4,000 members to a country like El Salvador.

CH: Okay.  Let--we'll come back to that, Oscar.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the history of violence in Central America with Oscar Martinez.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the history of violence in Central America with the journalist and author Oscar Martinez.  So before the break, you were saying?

OM: Yeah, I was saying that when United--when the administration of United States realized that MS-13 started to be a very dangerous group in south of California decide to deport like 4,000 members to El Salvador.  In '92, El Salvador wasn't exist.  We had no institutions.  We had no police.  We had no Human Right Commission.  We had nothing.  That was a very…

CH: Well, you--in your book--in your book, you call it--you say that our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governments, the result of a failed peace process.

OM: Yeah.  Yeah, I think that--I mean, there's two separate things.  I mean, I think that the deportation of gang members was one of the ingredients, was a lethal injection to countries like El Salvador.

CH: But the society wasn't--the structures of society couldn't handle it in essence.

OM: Couldn't handle because the peace agreement in El Salvador was a political agreement.  It wasn't an economic or social agreement.  I mean, the chief--the commander, the commandantes of the war thought about political thing.  How we can create, transform FMLN in a political party.

CH: This was the rebel organization.

OM: Yeah.  How can we create a law to protect ourselves?

CH: Right, right, right.

OM: From war crimes.  But they never thought about the social and the economic consequences.  So, after the war was--wasn't a process of--I don't know how to say that, but of reconciliation, that's the word.

CH: Yeah.

OM: It wasn't a process of reconciliation.  El Salvador, it's still a very--I don't know how to say this word in English, but it's still a very (speaking in foreign language)

CH: Polarized?

OM: A polarized society.

CH: Let me just read what you write, as a very succinct description.  You say, "We are living with violence, with death always close at hand, in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven't had the chance to get to know it.  We are a corridor for the transit of drugs.  We are also their consumers.  We are a poor society and poorly educated with public schools that flood and hospitals that induce nausea.  We are a society with a minimum monthly wage you could earn working a single day as a day laborer in Los Angeles.  We are unequal.  There are families in Central America, though very few, that could live with the rich and famous of Miami and there are families, tens of thousands of them, that can't always put food on the table.  There are families you can count them on one hand who have their own private jets.  And there are families, tens of thousands of them, that don't have electricity or running water.  We are all of this and we are also something more."  So what you're doing is having the United States, which has already, in large part, destroyed the country by backing the military which I told you before the show, when I got to El Salvador in '83 without military intervention, the FLMN would've overthrown the corrupt, brutal military government by 1984 at least.  The FLMN rebels in El Salvador mounted military campaigns that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua only dreamed of.  They were until maybe the FARC, the most successful rebel movement in Central America.  So you have the infusion of military aid, support, intelligence, 60% of the phone numbers, the extensions of the phone numbers on the US Embassy list were the same because 60% of them were working for the CIA.

OM: Yeah.

CH: We had all the Cubans down there including Felix Rodriguez who murdered Che Guevara and wore Che's wrist watch that he'd taken off his body and used to show to us.  So, they destroyed the country in essence.  They deny what was a campesino uprising demanding equality, the--so the structures are destroyed, physically it's destroyed, economically it's destroyed, politically it's destroyed because you've empowered the military as a political class, and then you start dumping these gang members.

OM: Yeah.  Then get dumped to a situation where for too many people was no option.  I mean there's a lot of people who say, "Hey, I just--I just know how to fight.  What do you want I do right now?"  So when this lethal injection of--I know it's a cheap metaphor, but I don't know another one in my mind right now.  When this lethal injection of gang members arrived to El Salvador, everything started to change because El Salvador was a place with desperate kids.  Alone kids, orphans, in every corner of El Salvador.  So imagine that.  At that time, United States ended 4,000 gang members from South California to my small country.  Right now, we have 62,000 gang members just in El Salvador.  And our population is 6.5 million inhabitants but not just that.  At that time, in United States, you just had the presence of MS-13 in one state, California.  Right now, you have MS-13 in four states.  So it--the deportation of gang members doesn't work for us but doesn't work for United States.

CH: I want to talk about drugs because you quite amazingly interview these narco traffickers in not only El Salvador but Guatemala and Honduras.  There's actually a scene I think you're in the Yucatan or something and Guatemala, this amazing moment where you explained that they--they're--the Guatemalans are so desperate to try and control this drug and trafficking industry.  They send up the military and as soon as the soldiers leave the edge of town, the narco traffickers give them $500.

OM: They are starting to work with them, yeah, that happened.  Yeah.

CH: But drugs now is--are also an important factor which you write--I mean, this is amazing, reporting.  I mean, you're right there in the middle of it, in the middle of these essentially narco states that have been carved out of sections of these countries.  Talk about the drugs.

OM: Okay.  I think that there's difference.  For example, between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, I know that people used to think about Northern triangle of Central America as one single country, but you know very well that--and right now, there's a difference.  For example, we have a very short coast in El Salvador.  We are not--we don't have border with Mexico as Guatemala have 1,002--102--no, 1,000 kilometers.  But in Honduras and Guatemala, narco traffic, it's on the top of destitutions.  I mean, for example right now, you have the trial of the--of one of the brothers of the former President of Honduras.

CH: Of the President of Honduras.  Yeah.

OM: And there's a lot of mayors of little towns involved with that but I think that drugs are not the main--is not the main issue in Central Americas in Mexico for example.  And for example, with guns, we talk about gangs and drugs for example.

CH: Well, the gangs make their money through extortion.

OM: Through extortion, yeah, you said…

CH: And drugs, though, right?

OM: Yeah, but small quantities.  For example, when we did an investigation with the New York Times--between E Faro and the New York Times in 2015, we asked to the authorities of El Salvador what was the huge--the comiso of cocaine that they made to MS-13.  You know how many cocaine?  One pound.

CH: Well, that's not true in Guatemala, right, Oscar?  I mean, from reading your book, it appears that…

OM: No.

CH: …drug trafficking in--because you talk about how they're buying up all sorts of land in the north, driving small farmers off the land.

OM: It's very different in Guatemala but it did not involve gangs.  I mean, in Guatemala, for example, in Peten in the border--in the--in the border with Mexico, you have no gangs because people who work with drugs don't want gang members around.  There is a huge difference between a cartel and we have cartels in Guatemala and Honduras, strong cartels.  In a gang organization, because for me, one is a financial organization, just want money.  And the other one, it's a cultural identity organization.  Very violent.

CH: Right.

OM: But the question is not how much money I'm going to earn.  The question for gangs is who am I in this world?  I mean, all the money that gangs do, they use that money for weapons.  They use that money for lawyers.  They use that money for widows.  That's why they deal with money.

CH: Well, it's interesting.  When you're interviewing like you interviewed this gang member who turned, The Hollywood Kid, I think his name was, who's eventually assassinated, but he's living in a shack.  I mean, it's interesting when you write about--you're right.  When you write about the gang members, they're actually living in slums.

OM: Yeah.  They are very poor people.  I mean, there's no one laundering money investigation in El Salvador about gangs, not in Honduras too or Guatemala.  If we talk about drugs in Central America, we need to talk about politicians, too.

CH: Yeah.

OM: That's the main relation.  I mean, you can buy, for example, on a corner of El Salvador, I don't know, a small, small portion of cocaine to a gang member.  Yeah, that's possible.  But that's the level I mean.  That's the level of relation between drugs and gang members.

CH: But the fusion is violence because the narco traffickers are really violent.

OM: Are really violent.  For example, yeah, I remember massacre that they commit in Guatemala for example inside--in Salcaja, they kill the whole police station in Guatemala.  Nine police.

CH: And you write about that.

OM: Yeah, I wrote one chronicle about it.  But there is a complicity between states and drugs.  I mean…

CH: And so where did the gangs fit in that equation?  You have a complicity between the military, the state, and the narco traffickers and where do the gangs fit?

OM: The only thing that I can say about the relation between gangs and drugs organizations is that sometimes, in Honduras, drugs organizations need the protection to gangs--to share the territory but that's all.  I mean, gangs are very violent organizations to try to--it's full of people who have no sense in this life.

CH: Right.  But they're young?

OM: Young people.  I mean, the decision about get involved inside the gang, it's took around nine and fifteen years old.  I mean, that's what you seal a whole life [INDISTINCT]

CH: Well, the other thing that comes through your book is they die very young too.

OM: Yeah.  Inside MS-13 for example, someone who have--who are around 35 years old, it's called The Omen, I mean, yeah, but they controlled the neighborhoods where they lived with the poor people living in El Salvador.  They don't have the level of expansion inside El Salvador.  For example, they--in 2012, they started to have contact in--with politicians.

CH: The gangs?

OM: The gangs but that started because the first government of FLMN who started the 2009 in El Salvador tried--did a truce with them to reduce the homicides rates in El Salvador.  And that's when gangs started to understand that they can talk with politicians.

CH: I just want to close.  I mean, I would take away from your book that unless the social inequality is addressed in a serious way, and it's only been exacerbated, not only is this problem not going to go away, it's going to get worse.  Would that be a fair takeaway?

OM: I don't know.  It's possible.  I mean the--let me see if I understand correctly your question.  (speaking in foreign language)

CH: If you don't address the social inequality.

OM: Yeah, of course.

CH: It isn't--not only is it not going to get better, it's going to get worse.

OM: It's going to get worse.

CH: Yeah.

OM: For example, that's the essence of all these things.  I mean, if--all the time that one young guy in El Salvador decide to involve with gangs, it's because it just had a very bad option.

CH: Well, there's no other option real often.

OM: Or no other option.  I mean, like the…

CH: That's also true in the United States.  I mean, you know, the poverty is the same, crime, to quote George Bernard Shaw, and it has the same results.  And, you know, you see it in the deindustrialized urban centers of the United States and you see it in--because you're cornered and if you don't--and, of course, now with climate change, trade agreements, and everything else, these extremes are only expanding.

OM: Yeah.  Somehow that happened, too, but, yeah, I think that it's a problem of inequality.  And, of course, I'm not saying that MS-13 is not a crime organization.  They are killers.  They are--but if we don't understand the roots of gangs like MS-13 or 18th Street Gang, it's impossible to destroy that kind of organization.

CH: Right.  Thank you, Oscar.  That was journalist and author Oscar Martinez about his book, "A History of Violence. Living and Dying in Central America."  (speaking in foreign language)

OM: (speaking in foreign language)