Oscar Martinez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,   the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of   El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.   It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in   the town   as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.   Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.     The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.     There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.   As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.   When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.   Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.   Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.   A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.   These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez.     A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.   His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.   He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.   Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.     A History of Violence:   Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.     With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.   He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the   ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.   He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.   It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.       Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.     His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.   Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.     I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.   You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.   It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.   It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.   This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.   It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.   These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.   It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least,  Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.   As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.   We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.   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.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.     Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Oscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.

The lost men of Guantanamo

Last week’s announcement  that El Salvador has resettled  two Uighur detainees from  Guantanamo Bay is another development in the grindingly slow attempt to bring one of  the most shameful episodes in US history to a close.

The Uighurs are the first prisoner releases from Guantanamo since January 2011.   They constitute a category of prisoner that has proven to be  a particularly tragic – and from the point of view of the Obama administration – problematic consequence of the extra-legal detention system established by its predecessors for ‘the worst of the worst’.

Twenty-two members of China’s Uighur ethnic minority were arrested in Afghanistan or Pakistan in 2001 and held in Guantanamo as  suspected ‘enemy combatants’.    Most of them were migrants or small entrepreneurs, who were connected to a small Uighur community in Afghanistan that found itself trapped during the 2001 war, and were arrested in Pakistan fleeing the bombings and handed over to US jurisdiction.

The Uighurs were designated by China as members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) –  a separatist organization in Xinjiang Province which the Chinese government claimed was  a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda.

The continued imprisonment of the Uighurs appears to have been partly a cynical attempt by the Bush administration to garner Chinese support for the Iraq war.  None of them have ever been charged with any offence, and in 2005,  they were collectively reclassified as NLECs (‘No longer enemy combatants’).

Even after that, they remained in detention,  at times  in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day.  In 2008 an Uighur prisoner named Abdulghappar Turkistani, published  an open letter  describing the conditions at Guantanamo,    in which

“Being away from family, away from our homeland… being forbidden from the natural sunlight, natural air, being surrounded with a metal box all around, is not suitable for a human being…We fail to know why we are still in jail here. We are still in hope that the US government will free us soon and send us to a safe place.”

These aspirations have taken a long time to materialise.   The Uighurs cannot return to China for fear of imprisonment and torture.  Nor can they be resettled in the US itself.  In 2010 the White House was considering a plan to resettle the Uighurs with Uighur-American families in the United States.   But these plans have been blocked by a series of restrictions imposed by Congress, aimed at blocking the resettlement of Guantanamo detainees on US soil.

These efforts culminated in the 2011 Defense Authorisation Act, signed off by Obama in 2012, which obligated the US Defense Secretary to ensure that any released detainee would not pose a threat to the US – conditions that Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon”s General Counsel, described as  ‘onerous and near impossible to satisfy.’

The shameful and cowardly decision  effectively transformed the Uighurs into stateless non-people.  Unwilling to  accept responsibility or offer any redress for the gross injustice perpetrated at Guantanamo, the US government has engaged in an unseemly attempt to find countries willing to accept the prisoners whose lives it has kept on hold for more than a decade, through a combination of diplomacy and financial    financial inducements.

These countries include Albania, where five Uighurs were transferred in 2006, and Bermuda, which agreed to accept four  Uighurs as ‘guestworkers’ in June 2009.   That same month  the government of Palau, a tiny Pacific island    with a population of 20,000, agreed to ‘temporarily resettle’ seventeen Uighurs in return for $200 million in development aid.    In December that year six men were transferred to Palau.

Now tiny El Salvador has stepped up to the mark.   In an interview with the Salvadoran Prensa Grafica, Daniel Fried, the US diplomat tasked with the resettlement of Guantanamo prisoners praised the ‘Salvadoran government for its ‘wise’ and ‘humanitarian’ willingness to accept the two Uighurs.

This decision may well owe more to the fact that El Salvador has no diplomatic relations with China – and financial inducements that may one day be revealed.  But whatever its reasons, this small country of 3 million people has done what the United States should – and could – have done years ago, and helped the world’s most powerful democracy dismantle a human rights disaster that is entirely of its own making.


Remembering El Mozote

Just over thirty years ago, in a three day period from December 10 to 13 1981, a unit of the US-trained elite Atlacatl Battalion massacred more than 1,000 men, women and children in the course of an anti-terrorist limpieza (cleanup) operation in and around the rural  hamlet of El Mozote, in El Salvador’s Morazan province.

The massacre was  a deliberate act of state terrorism that was intended to ‘drain the sea’ in an area was believed to be sympathetic to leftwing guerrillas of the Farabundi Marti Liberation Front (FMLN).    It was also the single worst atrocity in a 12-year civil war in which some 75,000 people were killed.   At the time the provisional Salvadoran government under José Napoleón Duarte  denied any responsibility and blamed the massacre on the guerrillas themselves.

These claims were  supported by the Reagan administration, which carried out its own misinformation campaign and dismissed photographs and media reports of the massacre as propaganda.  It was not until 1993 that  the legendary Argentine Forensics team exhumed dozens of skulls and human remains, including children at El Mozote, as part of the UN truth commission investigations that paved the way for an end to the civil war.

Even then the troglodyte Salvadoran right denied that  the military was responsible and insisted that the children had been shot by the FMLN or were in fact armed guerrillas themselves.   In 1994 I visited El Mozote myself, in the company of Father Rogelio Ponseele, a Belgian priest who had spent the entire civil war with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP).

At the time the hamlet was a spooky and mostly deserted collection of huts, and the only  monument to the savage events that had taken place there more than a decade before consisted of four stark silhouettes of a man and a woman holding the hands of a boy and girl.  Today  the monument includes the names of all those who died there, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the killings.

It was not until this Monday,  that El Salvador’s leftist president Mauricio Funes made the first public apology for the massacre during a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the peace accords which bought the civil war to an end.  At the site of the massacre, according to Associated Press, Funes told a gathering of peasants and farmers:

‘I ask forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of those who still today do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. I ask forgiveness from the people of El Salvador, who suffered an atrocious and unacceptable violence.’

On one level the fact that such an apology on one level is an indication of how much  El Salvador has changed politically since the 1980s.    To see what kind of place it was, it’s worth reading Mark Danner’s brilliant 1993 account of the massacre in the New Yorker  The Truth About El Mozote.

But the coming of democracy has not brought peace to El Salvador.  Two decades after the end of the civil war, it remains one of the most violent places on earth.  According to a report published last year by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world between 2004-09, with 65 homicides per 100,00 inhabitants, followed by Iraq and Jamaica.

Every year hundreds of Salvadorans are shot and stabbed to death.  But today it is no longer the death squads and the state organs of repression that are doing most of the killing, but tattooed nihilistic gangs fighting over territory in or a share of the US drugs market in a country where the average income is $7200.

Meanwhile, as the North American Congress on Latin America points out, military influence in El Salvador and across Central America is increasing as a result of the ‘war on drugs’ and its concomitant violence and insecurity.

From the US there has been no apology for El Mozote or for the support that it gave to the Salvadoran military and police who were responsible for 95 percent of all human rights abuses during the war.   At the time massacres and atrocities were considered a necessary price to prevent ‘another Nicaragua’ or the implantation of ‘totalitarianism’  in Central America – and Ronald Reagan’s coterie of Cold War zealots only paid attention to them in order to neutralise criticism inside the United States and ensure the continual flow of funding from Congress.

Today  the violence and cruelty that was part of the West’s ‘victory’ in the Cold War has been has been conveniently forgotten – or else it was never considered important enough to remember in the first place.   Meanwhile those who took part in that policy have died or continued in the same trajectory.    Ronald Reagan, the murderous cowboy-clown with the folksy grin has a statue erected in his honour in London.   Other former Reagan officials went on to join the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror.’

One of them was  Elliot Abrams, his sinister Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs – rarely has a job title been so far removed from the quality of the man who filled it.    A self-proclaimed ‘gladiator’ in the Reagan administration’s Central America policy, Abrams played a key role in attempting to cover up human rights abuses in El Salvador, and once dismissed reports of the El Mozote massacre in the Washington Post and the New York Times as ‘nothing more than communist propaganda’.

He    subsequently insisted  that ‘The Administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement’.      In 2001 Abrams became a national security advisor to the Bush administration on, with responsibility for the Near East and North Africa.    Abrams was one of a series of old Central America hands who oversaw the Iraq war and insurgency, and were closely associated with the policy known as the ‘Salvador option’ – in which Shi’a death squads directed from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior were unleashed against Iraqi insurgents and civilians during the so-called ‘surge’.

Today this ruthless Israel-firster, former Contragate crook and apologist for atrocity is a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and an unrelenting advocate of American and Israeli violence across the Middle East and beyond.

And this is the point.   For what took place at El Mozote was not an insane outbreak of irrational violence, but a method and a technique that has been used by states in many different conflicts.   National security managers like Abrams know this perfectly well, but they tend not to spell it out too overtly to an American public that still believes in America’s essentially benign purpose in the world.

Today America and its allies routinely decry regimes that ‘kill their own people’ as a justification for aggressive wars and ‘regime change’.   El Mozote reminds us of a time when the US supported one of the most barbarous and ruthless regimes of the late twentieth century – regardless of the fact its armed forces also ‘killed their own people.’

So let us remember the victims of El Mozote, but let us not forget the people who killed them and those who tried to cover up their acts.   Because there is really no reason why they should be forgiven.   And some of them are still with us, and like Macbeth, they have been wading in other people’s blood for so long that they simply can’t kick the habit.