Óscar Martínez on why El Salvador is a ‘good place to kill’

The World
Two workers holding a white body body bag as they place it in the back of a truck

Like many middle class Salvadorans, Óscar Martínez has a security system in his home. But his goes a step further that most. It has several panic buttons and other features we won’t go into because his life has been very specifically threatened on more than one occasion.

Martínez is willing to change some things about his life to deal with living in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. He, for example, takes his 3-year-old daughter to shopping malls, instead of public parks. He knows why he is a target, but that's one thing he doesn't plan to change. Martínez is one of the most important and reliable investigative journalists covering crime and migration in Central America, particularly in his native El Salvador where he writes for the the news site El Faro.net. His work covering gangsters, narco traffickers, crooked cops and corrupt government officials can piss people off.

Last year, he and two other El Faro journalists had to flee the country after their exposé about an alleged police massacre in which eight people were killed. He has since returned to El Salvador and now has a new book out in English, "A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America."

The book, a collection of some of his best long form articles, dives deep to the problems driving the region's violence and impunity, and is a fitting follow-up to his widely acclaimed 2013 book, "The Beast," for which Martínez spent three years following Central American migrants in their harrowing ordeals traveling through Mexico to the US.

If "The Beast" was a look at the dangers of the journey, "A History of Violence" focuses on why people take it to begin with.

“I would be satisfied if this book became a tool for those people who want to explain, principally in the United States, why so many people migrate,” he said in a recent Skype conversation from his home office in San Salvador. “I would be satisfied if this book became a tool for those who want to explain and reaffirm that the motivation of many migrants is not to migrate, but to flee.”

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In the first 73 days of 2016, 1,688 people were murdered in El Salvador, more than twice the number of people killed in the same period last year according to police data reported by a Salvadoran news site. The country is well on its way to surpassing last year’s total of 6,640 murders, which was itself a 70 percent increase over the previous year.

To put these numbers in perspective, roughly 162 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris in November and in Brussels in March.

According to Martínez and his team at El Faro, the murder rate in El Salvador dropped from mid-March through April, from about 23 a day to 10 per day, in large part because gang leaders agreed to reduce murders during their negotiations with the government. This week though, the gangs pulled out of all of their agreements with the ruling party and Martínez expects the murder rate to climb again.

The crisis in El Salvador and Central America has a direct impact on the US. It is one of the drivers of Central American migration across the border, which has been ticking up as again. More than 17,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were detained at the border in the last quarter of 2015, more than double the number of children detained in the same time period last year.

But "A History of Violence" isn’t about these migrants, at least not the ones who make it. It tells the story of "Hollywood Kid," a hitman who took a plea bargain to testify against the leaders of a gang and was eventually killed himself, despite being in a witness protection program.

It explains the life of Grecia, a victim of human trafficking who was lured into working for a brothel in southern Mexico and repeatedly raped by her captors. She was tricked into coming to Mexico with the promise of jobs and captured. Her captors, members of the brutal Zetas caretel, branded her with a tattoo, raped her and then turned her into a sex slave.

In the course of the book, Martínez travels to an isolated Guatemalan jungle villages to interview indigenous people displaced from their land, accused of being "narcos" while the real narco estates remained untouched. He meets with a narco trafficker in Nicaragua who explains how the industry has evolved, and with a city official in El Salvador who will only talk about local corruption anonymously and while standing next to an industrial motor, so no one can listen in. One chapter details the story of bodies at the bottom of a well, all homicide victims, and the quixotic quest by a forensic investigator to retrieve them before the statute of limitations expires and the accused murderers are freed.

Martínez spoke with Global Nation about the people he has written about in his book, Donald Trump’s wall and the good — and not so good — policies of the Obama administration.

Jared Goyette: Why do you think Central America receives so little attention compared to other regions of the world?

Óscar​ Martínez: I don’t understand why the outlets in the US, that have lots of resources, have such little interest in the region. It’s a region very related to the US because of the subject of migration, because of the subject of violence — there are cliques, or sub groups of the Central American gangs that have a presence in California, Houston, Washington D.C., New York. I don’t understand why they have such little interest in what happens in Central America.

It's part of a tendency to look for all the answers in just one place… We like to talk about refugee camps, but we don’t like to accompany migrants in their journey when it is a long journey like the one in Mexico. It seems like in many cases, many publications — and this is true in the entire world, not just in the US — like to get packaged tragedies so they can quickly see them and analyze them in just one product. When the tragedy is more complex to explain, as are these tragedies or modern wars in the north of Central America, the interest dissipates.

Photos: El Salvador's skyrocketing violence is being met by youth who risk their lives to treat victims

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JG: What’s your take on US presidential candidate Donald Trump?

I’m in agreement with a few of the things Jon Lee Anderson has said in the media. I read that he said that they should charge Donald Trump with hate speech or for inciting violence, which is a crime that exists in the US. I think that he is a an erratic man who represents the feeling of many people in the US who believe that change — and I’m referring to racial change, customs — is the apocalypse. He, like all politicians, is a real reflection of a certain part of society in the US.

This is not a problem that is just about one man, it is a problem that comes from a large part of the society that continues to think these things about undocumented immigrants, that continues to think that the construction of a wall is the solution. They built the first wall in Tijuana with leftover material from the Vietnam war was in 1994. And the migrants keep crossing through Tijuana, despite the fact that they built another wall with leftover material from the Gulf War, and that George Bush added 18,000 new border guards — now it's at 20,000 — with Operation Jump Start. The people keep entering. The lesson is that this is not the solution. And they keep believing this is the solution while 74,000 children arrive in one year in 2014, but they keep believing that it's the solution. I believe that is not a product of reason, but of hate.

Related: A filmmaker’s journey along the US-Mexico border shows it's 'a very powerful idea to have a line'

JG: Two chapters of "A History of Violence" deal with the state's inability to protect a witness who takes a plea bargains to testify against gangs. The US sends hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, with much (though not all) of it going to the police and military or to combat narco trafficking. Should the US be doing more to support the basic rule of law and things like witness protection programs?

OM: Right now I am finishing an investigation about the work of the public prosecutor's office and in two months I have learned about four protected witnesses who have been killed. Four more! If I kept working on this topic for a year, for certain I would discover 20 more. The system of witnesses protection in El Salvador doesn’t work but the entire justice system depends on testimony. It’s a system in which scientific proof is very poor; there are few people well qualified to do the job well. The investigation is principally based on finding a person who can tell you what happened. But we don’t offer protection to these people. Yes, the system of protected witnesses is garbage in El Salvador to the point where it’s very common that people are killed and no one is scandalized when an official says that a protected witness has been killed.

I believe El Salvador’s principal problem in relation to solving its violence problem is that the political class, which should resolve the problem, doesn’t understand it. The members of the security commission, the security cabinet, don’t understand exactly how a gang operates. They haven’t even dedicated themselves to understanding the history of where these gangs come from. They have a base of knowledge that has very little support in statistics, in data, in studies. They do what occurs to them in the moment. They are leaders who very rarely have a plan. They just have isolated ideas. And I think that this is part of what does us so much damage. The US should do a much better job of supervising how the El Salvadorian government spends this money. I’m not saying that they should stop giving money, because the US has a historic moral responsibility with these countries in the current violent situation. I say they should better manage how they give it and how it’s used.

JG: One of the stories in the book is about Grecia, a victim of human trafficking and sexual explotation. Why did you pick her story? What stood out about it?

It seems to me that in the way we generally view crimes, as a list of importance, there are some things which are misplaced. Since the ‘80s, the US has sold us the idea that drugs were the principal problem of organized crime. That’s what they have most wanted us to pay attention to — the drugs, who is a narco trafficker and how much drugs do they move?

I honestly prefer that a ton of cocaine passes through my country than having a victim of trafficking, of sexual exploitation like Grecia. I think that the model of combating drugs is absolutely absurd. It’s already been shown that prohibition is ridiculous. It’s already shown that criminalization is a loss for the state. However, the other crimes that organize crime comits, like those against Grecia, like the trafficking of a woman who spent months in confinement, raped by salvages — this seems normal to us, this we only punish it with eight years in prison at the most. This is something that we make invisible. To me it seems like journalism principally has to illuminate the darkest corners of our societies. This is one of the darkest corners of societies of Central America, what happens to women in Central American societies.

PRI: In one chapter, you tell the story of a group of bodies that were discovered at the bottom of a well and how, over the course of two years, the state was unable to retrieve the bodies. What’s the lesson of the well?

OM: For me the moral lesson of the story of the well is that the impunity of El Salvador is a selective impunity. If in this well there had been the children of businessmen, if they even suspected that there were children of businessmen, I assure you that they would have opened this well in a week. That’s to say that the first lesson, and the strongest, the most terrible, is that here in Central America there are distinct classes of citizens. There are some who are a little important. And there are others who are very important. And I believe that the people at the bottom of that well belonged to the class of Salvadorans who are of little or no importance. Only one in 10 homicides from the last year went to a trial — I’m not saying there was a conviction. I believe that the message that the Salvadoran state sends with acts like this is very clear: This is a good place to kill. If you kill, you will get away with it.

PRI: What do you think will be US President Barack Obama’s legacy in Central America?

Obama had a role in opening the discourse when it came to immigration reform. He, at least, tried. I think now some time is going to have to pass before someone else tries it again. He understood that the only way to combat violence in Central America is through a regional effort and he tried to unite the Central American governments — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — though the distribution of funds.

However, he continued believing that the principal solution to the problem is repression, because what [his administration] invested in the most is police, the army and the persecution of crime. He’s a president who continued believing that prevention, reinsertion and rehabilitation are secondary questions. He is one of the presidents who most believed in deportation. The fact is that he deported many more Central Americans than his predecessor. In this sense, I think that when it comes to thinking what is the solution with respect to Central America, Obama is a president who has done much harm in the issues I cover. At the same time, he has a lot of virtues with what he has done in the US. I don’t know a lot about that. I know I can tell you what he has done with the migrants, and I know what he tried to do with migrants. The numbers of deportations speak for themselves.

Obama was also complicit in allowing Mexico to become the natural barrier for migrants on their way to the US. This was not only disappointing, but also very irresponsible. The US government knows perfectly well what happens to migrants who cross Mexico trying to enter the US. I dedicated my first book to this and it doesn’t seem at all responsible to me to put the Mexican government in charge of that task. If you look at the stats, as the number of deportations declines in the US, they begin to expand exponentially in Mexico. I don’t think that’s a product of coincidence. I think it’s a product of conversations.

More: Is Mexico doing the US’s dirty work on Central American migrants?

JG: You have a family and a young daughter. Your life was threatened last year. Why do you continue to do the type of work that you do?

There are two responses: The first is egotistical. The only thing I know how to do and gives me any sense of satisfaction is doing journalism. I don’t know how to do anything else. I have done this since I was 17 and now I'm 33. I have never done anything else. I played soccer as a teenager but I'm not very good.

And second, I continue to believe that journalism changes things. Some days, I believe it less. But if it doesn’t change things, if I am convinced of anything, it’s what Seymour Hersh said, that journalism makes it more difficult for the corrupt and a little less difficult for the victims of this corruption or this violence. I continue to believe that the journalism that I do, the journalism that we do at El Faro, makes life a little more difficult for a few bastards. And I think that’s important. If at least I made it so this person gets nervous, or has a really bad day, or has to do this much better to continue corruption or violence, I consider myself satisfied. I hope that when I die, my epitaph doesn’t say, “He lived and died in the most violent country in the world and he didn’t do anything about it.”

Also: In one of the deadliest countries in the world, there's one business thriving — the coffin industry

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